Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

The View from Mudsock Heights: Pay-As-You-Go Cellular Service Has Gotten Cheap!

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 5:09 AM

Some of you may remember when it was a very big deal to make a long-distance telephone call. I have actual photographs of my grandparents, on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary in 1956, at the telephone, the notes on the backs of the pictures saying that they were receiving calls from Dallas and Nebraska. This was thought remarkable at the time.

And though I do not have both feet planted in dotage just yet, I remember when to place a long-distance call one called the operator, specified whether it was the expensive to the point of extravagance person-to-person or the devil-may-care, any old person on the other end will do, station-to-station, and waited for the operator to call back with the connection. In those days, you almost dressed up for a long-distance telephone call.

Then in the 1960s came what was called “direct distance dialing.” This is when we got area codes and could dial those who were far away, albeit at considerable cost.

Over time, long-distance telephone calls became less expensive. The phone company will now give you unlimited domestic long distance for a month at the cost of a single longish cross-country call made just a few decades ago. If you have broadband robust enough to handle it, the cost is even less.

The expensive calls then became those made over the cellular network. I remember doing an article in 1983 for a publication called Earshot that was a trade journal for radio newsrooms. The article explained how this new cellular telephone thing would greatly ease news reporting for those big stations that could afford it. I did not add, but should have, that this applied also to those big newsmen strong enough to carry the things. That’s because 25 years ago a portable cell phone was basically a car battery with a handle and a handset.

My first cellular telephone was installed in my 1986 Acura Integra. It cost $1,000 and came with a contract that gave me 30 minutes of airtime for $120 a month, whether I used it or not. I quickly discovered that the company’s clock ran a lot faster than mine did, resulting in some heroic bills. Fortunately, the company went bankrupt before my contract was over.

Cellular phones shrank and by the late 1980s a portable one was unbelievably small — no bigger than a carton (yes, carton) of cigarettes. But their use was still insanely expensive. I remember once, when I worked for a television network in New York, being reminded that when I got to an assignment I should rent not just a car but a cell phone as well. (Which I did, and which caused me to develop a theory about driving while talking on the telephone: we accustom ourselves to blocking out the rest of the world when talking on conventional telephones, and we tend to do that, too, when talking on a cellular phone, and that makes driving while talking on the phone dangerous — even though we could have the same conversation in perfect safety with someone else in the car.)

At no time in the last decade have I lived any place where there was reliable cellular service. Today, cell service is not unlike railroad service in the days of yore. It is nice where it exists, but it cannot be counted upon to be available everywhere. (The comparison is better, even, than that. One of the successful carriers, Sprint, got its name as an acronym for “Southern Pacific Railroad Intelligent Network of Telecommunications,” and grew from the Southern Pacific Railroad’s system of keeping in touch with its trains.) This made it fairly easy to avoid the expense of having a cell phone, which was (and, face it, often is) a luxury.

Then, in the early part of the current century, I needed to travel a bit and to move halfway across the country. Safety and convenience suggested that some sort of cellular phone during all this was a good idea. I got one of the little pay-as-you-go Trac Phones. It wasn’t cheap — about $75 for the phone and an additional $25 or so for some minutes — but it was cheaper than anything else I could find. It worked satisfactorily for a few years, and if I carefully managed the purchase of additional time, I could pay as little as 25 cents for a minute of airtime. This wasn’t bad because I didn’t use it much.

But then in 2007 I was given a Blackberry, an old one that still worked; my work required that I stay in touch not just telephonically but by email as well. It was an AT&T Blackberry, so I got that company’s service. The cheapest package they had ended up costing about $90 per month for unlimited data transfer and 450 “anytime” minutes each month, plus free nights and weekends.

This service was okay; coverage was nothing to write home about, but my use of the gadget was sporadic. I used it mostly to check email, and only when I was out of town did I much use the phone. Soon I had thousands of rollover minutes.

“Rollover minutes” are, in my estimation, a euphemism for a trick to get one to throw good money after bad. When I upgraded my Blackberry a couple of years later (through the purchase of one on eBay — I never got a phone from the company), I stuck with AT&T. I had rollover minutes.

Not long ago I got to thinking that I was not getting my money’s worth from AT&T, not by a long shot. I had 4800 rollover minutes, and would have had more but for the fact that they expire after awhile. Television ads (and the children I saw, constantly using cellular phones) suggested to me that I was paying too much. I phoned AT&T, which explained: tough.

Because I had no contract with AT&T, I began to explore the alternatives; ironically, this was sparked by an AT&T representative telling me I was now entitled to a free phone (if, of course, I agreed to a two-year contract). I surveyed the field and got swept up in all that’s out there.

Cellular communications have gotten truly amazing. I do not care for “texting” or “instant messaging.” So far as I’m concerned Facebook and Twitter (and before that, Myspace) are abominations designed for the young and the young at brain. That just about every phone that can do email comes equipped with these atrocities right up front was offputting to me.

Having a friend who is an Apple addict, I had played a little with an i-something that had a touchscreen. It was, I found, very cool for making the screen zoom around. It was awful for the things that I actually do.

There aren’t many people who know more about cell phones and related technologies than Tim Butler, proprietor of this august site. So I asked him what to do. He was more patient than I deserve in his comprehensive answers to my questions. I had new ones for him each day, as I fell in love with this phone or that one. What about the new Dell Streak? When it was released a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like the coolest gadget around, albeit with a touchscreen. What about this Samsung device or that one? Tim patiently answered my questions, and I disregarded his answers. I’ve come to think that selecting a cellular telephone-thing is a very emotional decision.

(I’ve also come to believe that it is very foolish to get a cellular telephone-thing that you have not actually tried out. Most of them have some truly irritating aspects that will fester and grow and lead to rage and insanity, such as an inability to delete Facebook and Twitter.)

Enroute from the airport one day last week I stopped at a Best Buy, hoping to see the new Dell — if I were stuck with AT&T (don’t forget those rollover minutes!), maybe there would be a really good deal and maybe the Streak would be just the right gadget. They didn’t have it. What they did have, though, opened my eyes.

A big display touted the pay-as-you-go features of Boost and Virgin Mobile. The “plans” — because it’s no-contract, they’re not plans in the AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint sense — were very cheap. Why would anyone have an expensive contract plan when this kind of service is available?

I gave it some thought, asked Tim (who did not pronounce me entirely crazy), and looked up the Boost service. They had interesting phones and plans that seemed unbeatable — try unlimited phone use and Internet for $50 per month. Best of all, Boost’s website said their products were available at my local Radio Shack store.

They weren’t. Some Radio Shacks carry Boost stuff, I was told when I visited the store, but not this one, because there is no Boost service here. Virgin Mobile, though, is pretty good, the clerk said. So I came home and researched Virgin Mobile.

I was stunned. They offered unlimited Internet use plus 300 “anytime” minutes for $25 per month. It no longer made sense to spend $65 more each month just to carry 4800 rollover minutes I’d never use anyway.

So back to town I went. In order to get Virgin Mobile service, one must purchase one of the company’s telephones. This might seem like a ripoff (and it is, to the extent that it’s absurd that phones are “locked” to one carrier or another; they’d be a lot cheaper if they weren’t), but the prices were not obscenely high. There were three phones that seemed to meet my requirements: The LG Rumor Touch at $130, the Kyocera Loft at $70, and the Blackberry Curve 8530 at $300. I ruled out the Blackberry straightaway in favor of the better keyboard on the LG, and the lower price. I got one and activated it.

The default applications were typically awful, but I figured that the objectionable ones could be eliminated. They could not. The real killer, though, was the email application, called “Email-IM.” Setting up my email account on the thing was easy enough, just a matter of entering the server addresses, my email address, and my password. This seemed like progress.

Then came using it. I’m sure there are worse telephone-things, but I’d never encountered one. To get to my email account I had to open the email application, then scroll down a long list of providers that I don’t use to get to my own email account. Because of the atrocious touch screen on the LG, it was virtually impossible to get to mine without accidentally opening one of the others. (It was possible to get there uneventfully only by opening the slide-out keyboard and using its arrow keys to scroll down to it.) The real dealbreaker, though, was the inability to set the thing to delete email from the gadget without also deleting it on the server.

I hated it. I took it back.

The manager of my local Radio Shack is a genial fellow named Jeremy. If sainthood is granted for patience, he’s up for it. Had he over the next couple of days murdered me, there’s no jury in the world that would have convicted him. I put him through things that I would never myself put up with.

I took back the LG, as I said. It seemed a good idea to give the Kyocera Loft a try, but then, right after he had activated it and moved my account over to it, I decided that no, I’d swallow hard and go with the Blackberry. While he was deactivating the Loft and activating the Blackberry he was told by the person on the phone with Virgin Mobile that Blackberry service was an extra $10 per month. My first reaction, on which I acted, was that this was a bad thing. So: unactivate the Blackberry and reactivate the Loft.

The Kyocera Loft is one of those phone gadgets that is actually worse than the LG. It looks like a Blackberry, but the keyboard is so terrible that it might as well be a dummy one molded into the plastic of the case. What’s more, it turned out to use the same awful “Email-IM” application as the LG. At opening time the following morning, I was back at Radio Shack.

I must have approached the store obliquely, for not even Jeremy would have been able to resist the urge upon my approach to lock the door, lower the blinds, and flip the sign to “Closed.” But half an hour later the Loft had left and the Blackberry was in my pocket.

Okay, $35 a month is not as cheap as $25 a month, and $300 is not as cheap as $70. But oh, my!

My old Blackberry was an 8700. I had kept it through a dizzying explosion of new Blackberry models because Research In Motion, the Blackberry company, had fallen in love with the trackball — really, more like the track BB, as manifested on the RIM gadgets. I love trackballs. I use one here at my desktop machine. But trackballs get dirty and need to be cleaned. A couple of decades ago I used various laptop computers that had built-in trackballs and found the experience unrewarding. One on a telephone-thing would be maddening. The 8700 had the little track wheel on the side, and it never failed me.

So the new Blackberry, referred to as “entry level” in the reviews, was a real surprise to me. It has an optical pointer, a little button that seems about halfway between the execrable touch pads that make current notebook computers unattractive to me and the wonderful Trackpoint nipple on ThinkPads. With it, one can get all the pleasures of a touchscreen without actually having to endure one. If there were netbooks that had this thing, I’d get one. The Blackberry’s keyboard is still too small, especially for those who need reading glasses, but it feels right and very quickly I could use it efficiently.

The biggest surprise was the software. The one I got uses the Blackberry 5.0 operating system. There are all kinds of applications for it — and remember, my $35 gets me unlimited data use. AT&T charges $25 for 2 gigabytes of data alone. (I’ve seen some pay-as-you-go outfits, though, that charge $1.95 per megabyte. There are web pages that use more than that when you load their homepages.) The Blackberry browser has been excoriated in reviews, but I love it. I was surprised that the Opera browser for it, which I immediately installed, does not work very well — the pointer is just too imprecise for it to be useful.

Something that I am finding wonderfully useful is its wi-fi. Though I do not have cellular service where I live, I can now check my email and even browse the web from anywhere in the house, even out on the porch, without dragging a computer around. And these things are more fun where there are hotspots, because wifi is often faster than cellular data (though the Virgin Mobile service is no slouch there — it seems noticeably faster than the AT&T datastream).

There were some downsides at first. Virgin Mobile technical support was not the best, in my estimation. One has to battle through the usual recorded voice offering options, and the only way I could get to a real person was to holler “live advisor” over and over. I probably could have read aloud from the phone book and gotten a live person just as quickly. But a real person did not assure success. In my experience, the live persons were not well versed in the English language. This was a problem in several areas, not the least being that the instructions for setting up email that came with the phone were erroneous. After several calls, I finally found the person who knew how to fix this. After that, setting up email was easy, in typical Blackberry style: enter your email address and password, and soon your mail is being pushed to you.

But there was more “communication” with tech support after that. Email messages sent from the gadget contained the signature “Sent from my BlackBerry® powered by Virgin Mobile,” which I did not want. Also, I like to have messages sent from my mobile gadget to be bcc’ed to my mail server, so I have a record of them. The good people of Virgin Mobile tech support informed me that this could not be done, because those features had not been set up yet. (I discovered, after a few hours’ searching and experimenting, that they can indeed be done: open the browser and at the default homepage scroll down to “Email” and click thereon. Scroll down past all the email vendors you do not have, to the place that invites you to set up an account. All of a sudden, you’re connected with the RIM server and your settings are displayed and may be edited. The offending signature can be replaced and other settings can be altered. Save ‘em, enter your mailbox password, and all is well. What’s even cooler is that you are then asked if you’d like to add another account — numerous accounts can be configured to dump into the same mail folder, with separate send-receive settings for each.)

The Blackberry contains a lot of features that I do not want, but these are inescapable on telephone-things of all sorts. I do not want a not-very-good (or any other kind of) camera in my telephone. Nor a movie camera. I do not use my telephone to play recorded music. The Blackberry contains GPS, which is more a stunt than anything else (though it is kind of fun). None of these “features” are as good as those found on dedicated devices; again, it seems as if our cellular telephone-things are being designed by and for 13-year-old girls. At least on the Blackberry they can be pushed out of the way.

On the whole, though, I couldn’t be happier. I would rather have this little Blackberry than the latest iPhone or even the Dell thing. And the price is right.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Once upon a time, plain old telephone service was awfully expensive. Then, after awhile, it got a lot cheaper.

The same thing is bound to continue to happen — it’s already happening, as witness my new gadget — with cellular service. Despite the false starts I experienced with the LG and the Kyocera (which I attribute in part to an inability to try them out in the store), and despite the irritations of dealing with less-than-optimal support, I do have to wonder why anyone would choose a different service. Yeah, there are telephone-things that have bigger screens and more absurdly populated “app stores,” but are they worth paying three times as much per month to have? I suppose for some people they are, but not for me.

If enough people use the inexpensive, pay-as-you-go services, though, the big guys will have to start offering better plans at lower rates, without onerous contracts.

It will happen. Mark my words.

Finally, certain that I was losing nothing in making the switch, I phoned AT&T and told them that as soon as the current month expires I’ll no longer be with them. The very polite lady there asked me why, and I told her.

Then she said, a little triumphantly it seemed to me: “You know you’ll lose your rollover minutes, right?”

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at