5 things cell phone carriers should offer (but don’t)

Jul 16, 2012

Most cell phone plans cost consumers hundreds if not thousands of dollars per year for voice, texting and data services. Yet the major cell phone carriers are still making our lives difficult by forcing us to pay for things that we don’t need, or deal with applications that we don’t want. Rates will inevitably rise […]

Most cell phone plans cost consumers hundreds if not thousands of dollars per year for voice, texting and data services. Yet the major cell phone carriers are still making our lives difficult by forcing us to pay for things that we don’t need, or deal with applications that we don’t want.

Rates will inevitably rise as we continue to use our handheld devices for more than just talking and sending text and email messages. If we do end up paying more, the least we can do is demand more flexible plans.

Here are five things cell phone carriers should offer, but don’t.

Data-only plans

From playing games, to listening to music to balancing our bank accounts, we are able to do a little bit of everything on our smartphones. One thing we are actually doing less of, however, is talking into them. Yet while many of us treat our smartphones more like handheld computers and rarely use the number of minutes we pay for each month (if any at all), cell phone companies are resistant to offering data-only plans. This is for good reason. Voice and text plans typically start at about $40 per month for the major carriers, which include Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. These plans represent a revenue stream the carriers would like to keep as long as possible. However, there are several free and reliable applications that let consumers place calls and send text messages. Consumers should have the option to just pay for the data required to make these apps work, and save at least $500 per year on no-longer-necessary voice plans. It’s promising that AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson predicts that data-only plans will be offered by the carriers within two years. But why do we have to wait that long if the technology already exists? The carriers will figure out a way to make up for the lost voice revenue by jacking up the data costs anyway.

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Plans that only charge per consumption

While the major carriers will likely follow Verizon’s lead and eventually only offer unlimited voice and texting plans, what they should actually do is enable consumers to just pay for what they consume. Why do we have to pay for 1,000 or even 500 minutes if we only make a few calls per month? Further, when we do exceed the number of minutes allotted in a given month, the carriers that still have those packages are quick to hit us with overage penalties. One upstart carrier called Ting has the right idea here. Ting subscribers can purchase as little as 100 minutes per month. All-in, that plan costs nine bucks each month. Go over 100 minutes? No worries. Ting will just bump you up to the next plan and not charge an added fee. It would be nice to see the larger carriers offer the same flexibility.

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Less costly ways to upgrade phones

It seems like every three months or so there is a new innovation in smartphones, which make older models increasingly obsolete. But upgrading your phone will cost you more than you think. In April, Verizon was the last of the four major carriers to introduce an upgrade fee for existing subscribers who want to buy a new device. The $30 fee is on top of the subsidized cost of the device (which usually starts at $200 for higher-end smartphones). Making matters worse, subscribers are forced to commit to an additional two years of service and end up paying the carrier about $2,500 by the time the contract is up. If the carriers insist on charging an added fee to consumers who want the best devices available, they should reduce the length of their contract extensions. Unfortunately, all four of them are currently having it both ways as AT&T and Sprint charge $36 upgrade fees while T-Mobile offers a “deal” at eighteen bucks.

Go after spammers more aggressively

While the carriers are providing some tools for consumers to block or report text messages that are illegally sent to their devices, their efforts to date are not adequately addressing the scale of the problem. Last year alone, there were more than 4.5 billion spam text messages sent to consumers. Beyond being an annoyance, spam texts cost money for consumers who are not on unlimited text plans. Further, users can unwittingly sign-up for paid subscriptions or divulge sensitive personal information by accidentally tapping the wrong character or icon while deleting an unwanted text. All four major carriers provide tools that allow users to tag and forward along offending messages so they aren’t charged anything for receiving them. The carriers also allow users to block texts from certain providers, although AT&T charges $4.99 per month for that service (the others offer free methods). Although these efforts are helpful, in many ways they are akin to pulling dandelions from the ground. Spammers will figure out another number or entity to distribute messages from, and many users may not easily understand the forwarding process. The carriers should offer a more intelligent text messaging interface (like Internet service providers do with email) that helps users recognize and prioritize messages from known or established providers. They should also be more aggressive working with authorities to shut these operations down. In the meantime, if you own an Android device, at least there are third-party applications you can download that address the problem.

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Allow users to easily uninstall bloatware

The term “bloatware” refers to all of the applications, widgets and promotions that are pre-installed on your device. Not only do these things mess up your screen, but they also consume battery life and generally make your device run more slowly. While Apple is pretty judicious about the number and types of apps that are pre-installed on its devices (regardless of the carrier), most Android and Windows smartphones phones contain unnecessary programs that are often embedded within operating systems. This means that it is difficult (and in many cases impossible) to uninstall unneeded applications. Users who attempt to “root” their devices and remove all features installed by their carrier or manufacturer could temporarily disable their phones. And once a phone is rooted, the service warranty becomes null and void. So, either the carriers should work with the manufacturers to make it easier for the mainstream user to uninstall an app, or not penalize users who try to remove those apps on their own.

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Brad Spirrison

Brad Spirrison is the managing editor of appoLearning and Appolicious Inc. In this capacity, he has sampled and evaluated thousands of iOS and Android applications. He also holds an M.A. in Education and Media Ecology from New York University.

Spirrison worked in concert with appoLearning Expert and Instructional Technology Specialist Leslie Morris while curating and evaluating educational applications.

A longtime media and technology commentator and executive, Spirrison is also a regular contributor to ABC News, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Bloomberg West and The Christopher Gabriel Program.

Spirrison is married and lives with his wife and young son in Chicago. As his son was born just weeks before the debut of the iPad, Spirrison takes his work home with him and regularly samples and enjoys a variety of educational applications for young children.

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