Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Buying" a Cellphone

Almost everyone in America has a cellphone. Certainly every college-age person. So when Kristen's cellphone stopped working, I knew we needed to buy her a new one as soon as possible. Since we've been on our current plan for more than 2 years, and since we've received various notices that we're eligible for a free new phone, I thought it should be relatively simple to go to an AT &T store and just buy a phone.

I thought wrong.

It turns out that you basically can't just buy a cellphone, at least not at any sane price. We went to the nearest AT&T store and explained our situation. We don't want to change our contract in any way, just buy a new phone to use. The guy talked in code for a few minutes, ending by suggesting that we open a new line in order to get a discounted phone. How much would a new line cost? Oh, only $10. $10 per what? Uh, per month. For how long? Well for 2 years. And how much of a discount would that buy us? Like $150 cheaper. And what would we do with that line, since we already have 3 lines and 3 people? Oh, it would be a ghost line. Just to get the discount. Wait, you're suggesting that I spend $240 over the next 2 years in order to get a $150 discount? His response: I'm not saying you should do it, but that's what some people do.

Translation: I confuse some people so much that I trick them into paying $240 to save $150, but since you can multiply, never mind.

We gave up and waited till the next day, during which we did a bit of research to find out if there are sane and simple ways to just buy a phone at a reasonable price. Turns out that the answer is essentially no.

You can get phones in one of three ways: get a phone below cost in exchange for signing a 2 year contract, pay what the sales persons sneeringly refer to as "retail" (ie over $300 for a piece of equipment that you know isn't worth that much), or buy a pay as you go phone for somewhere around $50~$75 and then pay 10 cents per minute to use it.

This last option would be fine for people like Sam and me, who use cellphones mainly for quick calls to check on things. (And even these have hidden tricks built into them, it appears, like $1.00 per day charges that apply only on days when you use the phone. wth?) But Kristen often calls just to chat, and talks for as much as an hour at a time. And I don't want her to worry about the cost every time she makes a call.

So we went to 4 different AT&T stores and Circuit City, in a feeble attempt to find out if there was a way to avoid signing up for an additional 2 years of service and still get a phone for under $100.

As a last resort, we went to Radio Shack, which had two advantages: it has multiple phone services available, so that you can directly compare costs, if you don't already have a provider. (We wanted to continue with AT&T not because it's necessarily good, but because Kristen's phone line is a $10 a month add-on to my basic service.) The other advantage of Radio Shack is that the guy who waited on us was really knowledgeable and also low-key and didn't seem like a scam-artist.

What we ended up doing was adding 2 years to Kristen's line (but not to the contract as a whole) and getting a phone for only $16, which was actually the sales tax only. Even if we take into account the $10 per month, the most we paid for this phone was $216. And of course, she can use it freely. We hesitated about the 24 month thing because she hopes to spend several months in Italy next Fall. But we figure she'll just have to get a pay as you go phone that works in Europe or something. It's only 10 weeks.

But my question remains: why do they have to make it so damn hard to simply buy a phone? Why the long-term contracts? As Kristen pointed out, cellphones may be obsolete within 2 years. And if it's such a good deal, why do they have to basically trick you into staying with them for 2 years up front? And once you've fulfilled that obligation, why do they make it impossible to avoid a second 2-year commitment? They don't seem to trust that their service would be good enough that you would willingly buy it. If they sold their phones for a realistic price, instead of the vastly inflated "retail" price which they then "discount" to give you a sensible price for your phone, maybe people would buy more phones! Is the whole aura of shell-game really necessary?

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