The People vs. Cell-Phone Tyranny: A Case for Lower Monthly Bills

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If the jig isn’t up, it seems like it should be soon. There’s simply too much inexpensive technology out there to justify the sorts of bills and restrictions the average wireless customer puts up with in the U.S.

The FCC is taking a close look at the world of wireless this week, and it won’t be difficult to predict what they’ll find. With very little effort, the federal probe should come to the conclusion that consumers are consistently taken advantage of by AT&T and the rest of the big providers. The three areas the FCC is discussing—wireless competition, barriers to entry and investment in the marketplace, and consumer billing—could sorely use some reform and oversight.

One of the issues that has already come up is the fact that AT&T has banned Google Voice from usage on Apple‘s iPhone. A little background from the WSJ:

With Google Voice, you have one Google phone number that callers use to reach you, and you pick up whichever phone—office, home or cellular—rings. You can screen calls, listen in before answering, record calls, read transcripts of your voicemails, and do free conference calls. Domestic calls and texting are free, and international calls to Europe are two cents a minute. In other words, a unified voice system, something a real phone company should have offered years ago.

Apple has an exclusive deal with AT&T in the U.S., stirring up rumors that AT&T was the one behind Apple rejecting Google Voice. How could AT&T not object? AT&T clings to the old business of charging for voice calls in minutes. It takes not much more than 10 kilobits per second of data to handle voice. In a world of megabit per-second connections, that’s nothing—hence Google’s proposal to offer voice calls for no cost and heap on features galore.

You can certainly understand why AT&T doesn’t want iPhone users to be able to access Google Voice, or for that matter, to use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services like Skype, which allows free international calls among fellow Skypers. But AT&T has to know that, in today’s age of rapidly spreading technology (and less and less expensive technology), such a business plan won’t last for long.

Wireless customers can expect plenty of newer and cheaper options, and dinosaurs like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint Nextel may very well die out. That’s what true, survival-of-the-fittest competition does.

Can’t you imagine a day when there are no exclusive deals like AT&T has with the iPhone—when any device works with any network, and customers aren’t locked into pricey, long-term contracts? One day, the government may be able to decipher the lingo on cell-phone bills and put an end to absurd rate hikes that some consumer advocates call “because they can” fees. (How much do you think it really costs providers to transmit a text message? I’m guessing next to nothing, yet they often charge 5¢, 10¢, even 20¢ a pop.) Endless restrictions and penalties in the fine print of wireless contracts may disappear as well; T-Mobile, for instance, recently lost a class-action suit regarding early-termination fees.

Regulators in Europe are steadily moving to lower rates and cell-phone fees—and Europeans already pay less for wireless than we do. The average cell-phone customer in Sweden and Finland pay $11 or $12 a month, or about five times less than the average American pays.

Why? It’s not because we have better service, or because folks in Scandinavia use their cell phones less than us.