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Phony baloney

January 14, 2011

I was on the phone with my pal Creighton Fee, when he mentioned how amazing the changes in communication have been over the past 20 years.

"Twenty years?" I said. "Hey, I can't keep up with the changes over the last five."

And it's true. When it comes to modern communications (and modern anything else, for that matter) I'm completely out of it.

Yeah, I know there are such things as computer chips, LEDs, fiber optics, satellites and digital everything, but they just don't make sense to me. Sure, they do all they claim to do but it seems they shouldn't. To me, that many functions and that much efficiency just isn't right.

Of course, the technology I least understand is the most ubiquitous one- the cell phone.

To my archaic way of thinking, cell phones are there for only one thing, emergencies, which they almost never are. In fact, given their involvement in automobile accidents, injuries and deaths, I'll bet they've caused more emergencies than they've ever avoided.

But that's just one example of their contrary nature. For example, I always thought the purpose of a phone was to have private conversations, but now, thanks to the wonders of cell phone technology coupled with good old-fashioned inconsideration, we get to hear every moron's phone chat at a decibel level that'd be thought rude if it was in an actual conversation.

Then of course, there's texting. Thirty years ago, the best a bored kid in a classroom could do was hand a note to the kid in the next desk. Now he can text some other bored kid in a classroom in Kuala Lumpur - Hands-Across-The-Oceans at its best.


Seek and you shall find (maybe)

It's obvious I'm no great fan of cell phones. Nonetheless, a few months ago I considered getting one.

Was this a perfect example of my world-class hypocrisy? No.

Was it my desperate attempt to join the rest of "civilization"? Hardly.

Was it a sign of incipient senility? Perhaps.

Mostly, I wanted a cell phone for its intended purpose - emergencies.

I do a lot of travelling, most of it in a vehicle that in car years is about equal to me in people years. If this isn't reason to worry (about both of us), I don't know what is.

Furthermore, finding a pay phone in America today is about as easy as finding something made in America today.

All I wanted was a simple phone and simple plan, which I thought would be a simple chore till I started on it.

There are phones with cameras, keyboards, touchboards, and for all I know, surfboards. Then there's all the junk you can add to it - solitaire, backgammon, ringtones, death rays and so on.

I had no idea where or how to begin, so I consulted my expert in all consumer endeavors, Kookie.

"Just get a basic Tracfone with a basic plan," she said. "That's what I did and it's fine."

OK, easy enough, I figured. And of course I figured wrong.

The thing is, they have basic phones (or is it fones?) and it was no sweat finding one. But the plans boggled me. Even though I only wanted to talk on the darn thing, I was stymied when it came to a plan for how to do it.

Yeah, I could buy a bunch of minutes, and if I did it with a production code or secret password or something like that, I got double the minutes for the same price. Great, I thought.

Then I looked into it some more. It turned out if I didn't use those minutes within a specific time period, I lost them. Bummer.

What to do? I kept on reading, and then I found out if I bought some other plan, I could actually keep those minutes. Or at least I could keep them for a certain time, when I'd have to continue the plan or buy more minutes or some damn thing.


If at first, second and third you don't succeed

I was boggled, so I did what I usually do - I bagged it.

Then I started looking for simple plans in other companies. Unfortunately, my idea of a simple plan wasn't the phone companies'. They all had so many ifs, ands and buts that I realized why people get unlimited plans. They're easy to understand: You pay one fee and you can call and text till the cows come home.

Otherwise, making sense of the plans is like making sense of U.S. foreign policy (if we even have one). Say you're in a deep conversation that dreamboat you just met on and get so carried away you go over your allotted minutes, way over. Then what? Simple, at the end of the month when your bill arrives, you just take out a second mortgage so you can pay it.

The plans had me so confused, I thought I'd check on the companies' customer service reviews and see how they stacked up.

The good news is they all stacked up the same. The bad news is almost all the companies' reviews were lousy. This confused me even more for a while; then I think I figured it out.

The companies have lousy customer service because they can.

Think about it: If you've got a cell phone and everything works fine, you never call customer service. But if something goes wrong, then you call them and when you do, they either read a prepared statement over and over, lie to you, tell you the problem's all in your head, or worse. So then what? Then you do what everyone would do - you switch to another company.

But here's the thing: Because a cell phone is now considered a necessity and almost everybody has one, the companies don't have to sweat it. OK, so Company A ticks you off and you drop them and go to Company B. Meanwhile, your neighbor got shafted from Company B, so he drops them and goes to Company A.

It's brilliant, really: As long as every company's service is as crappy as the others, they'll all be getting a rotating customer base and probably the same market share they always had.

So after all my investigation into cell phones, I ended up getting only one thing - a headache. Luckily, that problem unlike my cell phone one - was a resolved with an aspirin.



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