Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Teenagers and Cell Phones

About a year ago my 4 year old cell phone was still functional but well worn. Some of the numbers were rubbed off and hard to read. It looked so ratty I was getting occasional wise cracks like “you sure that thing works?” So I decided to get a new one for myself and I figured it was time my teenage daughter got her first cell phone as well. I have been with the same cellular company for over 15 years. I tend to keep my phones quite a while since to me they are just a tool of the trade and I never get the “new bells and whistles” fever.

Even though I was a month to month customer who was not bound by contract to stay with this company, I have been satisfied with the service so I didn’t entertain the thought of switching. Cellular companies don’t want you switching to another provider so they contractually bind you to make sure you don’t. Want to leave their family before your contract ends? No problem. Just pay the “early termination fee” as per the contract and you are free to go. We all understand that right?

They also require that you turn in your old phone, even the ugly ones like mine that barely work (unless you know all the little workarounds and tricks). The reason is simple. They do not want you to have a backup phone. That’s right, drop your shiny new phone in the tub while trying to talk and bathe your dog (or yourself!) and it’s your tough luck.

I have a habit of putting my phone in my lap after I hang up. I usually forget that it’s in my lap and when I stand up it doesn’t just fall like a rock it goes airborne and fly’s across the room landing hard as it slides against the wall (Ok I’m exaggerating).

Apparently my cell phone company would prefer that I not have a backup phone because they want me back at the negotiation table to hammer out a new deal if I lose or have a mishap with my phone. Forget about buying one of the affordable phones online at Best Buy or at Wal Mart…they won’t work. You see cell phone companies have their own proprietary deals with the phone manufacturers so if you don’t buy your phone from the batch of phones they purchase from Motorola, Nokia, etc. then it won’t work. This isn’t the case with all cellular companies. But it is that way with the company I have been with all these years.

But that’s ok I thought, contract or no contract, backup phone or not, I’m not interested in changing to another company. So I went to the local store on Bienville Blvd. and made the deal on two new phones and signed a new two year contract for both. I had many questions but one important one was what my options were if either of the phones quit working. I was told to not worry because each phone had a one year warranty and after one year I could “upgrade” either or both phones to a brand new one for a reduced price. Sweet. Of course if I opted to “upgrade” I would be required to sign a new two year contract. I felt ok with the conditions as they were explained to me so I made the deal.

As the first year anniversary was approaching my daughter was counting the days until she could get her brand new phone. It seems the first phone I picked for her was “cool and cute and all” but it lacked an essential feature that no teenager can live without….Bluetooth. So here we were one year later and true to my word I was getting my daughter a new phone. But there was a problem. As the salesperson was going over the total cost with me something didn’t seem right. The rules had changed. Two months earlier Cellular South had added a new fee called “the early renewal fee” and the cost was 60 dollars! I asked what is “the early renewal fee?” The answer amazed me.

The original contract I signed was for two years. I was one year into the contract and now, even though I was committing to a new two year contract, I was being charged 60 dollars for renewing the contract “early.” That’s right, for the privilege of doing business with them for another two years I was being charged a fee! I tried to reason with the lady by explaining this new fee was not in play when I made the original deal but my words fell on deaf ears. I was told that in order to offer the new phone at such a fantastic price the company developed these charges to offset the normally high cost of the phone. So, 50 dollars for the phone, 60 dollars for the early renewal fee, plus taxes and I was looking at forking over close to 120 bucks for the new phone. Later that day I went online to see what this model phone could be purchased for and at Best Buy it was $79.00!

So with the early termination fee, the early renewal fee, and the requirement of signing a 2 year contract when you want a new phone cell phone companies have developed a way to make sure that once you’re their customer it will cost you dearly if you choose to go somewhere else. As I was leaving the parking lot I noticed on the sign in front of the store that Cellular South has a new offer. If you are with another company and want to switch to them they will pay off your early termination fee (usually hundreds of dollars!) I thought to myself I have been their customer 15 years and they changed the rules after I signed a contract with them last year. Now they have a new program where they will pay off the obligation of their competition’s customer as they are losing me as one. How ironic!

So did my daughter get that new phone? Nope. Even though I was willing to pay whatever it cost to get her one (a deal is a deal!) she refused to take it. She said “dad that’s a rip off…I can just use this one another year and then can we switch to another company?” That’s my girl!

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