Tuesday, July 29, 2003

I'M NOT A CELL-PHONE KIND OF GUY. You probably could have guessed that, if I haven't mentioned it already. I don't actually talk to people on the phone if I can avoid it.

But I've seen those Virgin Mobile commercials ("pay-as-you-go service!"), and I've been intrigued. No monthly fees, no complicated scheme that treats "minutes" as a commodity -- you just use the thing when you need to and pay for only the time you use. And Virgin sells a $100 phone that folds to pocket size and can be set to vibrate instead of ringing some annoying ring. Not that I'd give my number out. Maybe to the wife. No, what I want is a portable phone booth for emergencies or the occasional "I'm running late" call. That would be nice.

Unfortunately, Virgin Mobile doesn't really offer pay-as-you-go service. In a classic "never mind" moment, I read the fine print and found this:

As long as you add at least $20 every 90 days your account will stay "Current."

Every time you Top-Up your 90 days starts over. If you forget to Top-Up at all in 90 days, your account becomes "Past Current" and you won't be able to make or receive calls.

60 days after your account becomes "Past Current" your account will expire. But you don't want that to happen because expired accounts lose their phone numbers.
Let's see: $20 divided by 3 equals $6.66 if you consider the glass half full, $6.67 for us half-empty types. So what we have here is not a pay-as-you-go plan, but a monthly service agreement. A pretty darn cheap monthly service agreement, but a monthly service agreement all the same. I really wish the Virgin folks had come clean in the first place and just promoted it that way. I used the Virgin Mobile Web site's feedback link and told them as much. Boy, was I surprised when a reply came within minutes.

Unfortunately, the information you have is incorrect. Virgin Mobile is strictly a pay-as-you-go service. We do ask that you Top-Up with at least $2o every 9o days, however, to keep your account active. Actually, here, I shall explain it all to you so there's no confusion.

Instead of getting a bill, you just add money to your account when you need it. We call it 'Top-Up'. To keep your account open, or "current", you need to Top-Up at least $20 every 9o days, regardless of the current balance, but what's on there adds to the Top-Up.
The company line. What, exactly, was incorrect about my information? Another quick reply:

Ok, you got me. You wanna know something though? No cellular company, be it pre-paid or contracts, doesn't have some sort of 'monthly' fee. The other pre-paid services out there will charge you anywhere from $15-$25 a month, where we only ask that you add money to your account every 9o days. Yes, you are correct when saying that there is a mandatory payment, but we never hassle you to pay it. It's a requirement to keep your account current, yes, but if you never pay it, we won't penalize you, and you're free to reactivate your phone at any time after that, if it expires. The only bad thing is that you will lose your number. But to be honest, we are the most liberal of all the cellular companies and that is why we are the best. Hope this clears things up for you a little more.
Now I'm torn. I probably shouldn't be suckered in by that eventual honesty, but I can afford $6.67 a month and I am impressed with the quick communication, even if much of the lively chatter is boilerplate.

So now I start thinking about the other things that are wrong with cell phones. One: In a heck of a lot of places, they simply don't work. I find that amazing at this point, but it's true with Virgin and it's true with AT&T, or at least the AT&T service my wife has. Jacqueline isn't a cell-phone person either, but she's addicted to mobile Web and e-mail access. The plans that provide this also provide a lot of "minutes," and so we've used her phone a lot while traveling. Except when we haven't. It seems the service she uses and the one I'm thinking of using have a lack of "roaming" in common, so you pretty much have to stay on major highways and in major cities. She says there's hope that the necessary roaming agreements are about to go into effect, so that eases my conscience about investing in service that doesn't plug those holes.

Issue No. 2 is the fact that when cell phones work, they still don't work. Also amazing at this point is that connection and sound quality are still at the orange-juice-can-and-string level. And at least the can-and-string phones had what they call "full duplex." You and your little friend could talk at the same time and still hear each other -- no "over" or "over and out." Don't go writing me about how all modern cell phones are full duplex. They say they are, but they aren't. I've had to call the editor of the Post's weekly technology pages, who's used every cell phone known to man and presumably has one that's pretty good, and the delay between my talking and his hearing, and vice versa, resulted in something that for all practical purposes was far less than full duplex. All this when the call doesn't get cut off entirely, of course.

Also, I'm afraid that being a cell-phone owner might someday result in my using the pretentious-moron phrase "land line."

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours? Weblog Commenting by HaloScan.com