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We are in thrall and enslaved by the carriers ... So what are we going to do about it?

Posted: 06.30.11

I recently got a new phone, a Motorola Droid X2 to be precise. I have a few other phones, a Nokia N95, an iPhone, and a Sony Ericsson Xperia

Play. Because of tariffs and roaming charges I maintain a US phone (that was the iPhone’s job) and a European phone (the N95). The N95 has a SIM and a SD slot, and a removable battery. But it’s older technology, and the N95 has the lame Symbian OS—time to move on. So the Xperia Play has become my international phone. That took nothing more than moving the SIM from the N95 to the Xperia. My Orange account in England couldn’t care less what apparatus I use, as long as I use it and send them a check every month, thank you very much.

In the US things aren’t so easy (and even worse in Korea, but that’s another story). In the parochial US where the tower operators are xenophobic about their subsidized fiefdoms they prefer phone that are sealed, like the iPhone. Only relatively recently, under a federal mandate, were we US citizens allowed to keep our phone number if we should stray from one carrier to another.

And so I have to go to the AT&T altar and prostrate myself and beg forgiveness and ask to take my number to another carrier, forgive me father for I have sinned (and will again). I still have the iPhone, AT&T has no use for that— it is dead in their eyes, and in fact as a phone it is. However, the dead iPhones are usable (and giftable) iPod Touches. And that shall be its zombie like life hereafter, in one of my kids’ back pack.

The Droid X2 is equally non-secular and now I have to go the church of the Verizon, get a full body scan, give them the last four years of my tax records, and promise my first born if I should stray or be 25 nanoseconds late paying my bill.

I pondered this ridiculous state of affairs while enjoying a grape jelly filled doughnut at Dunkin’ Donuts and had the epiphany — carriers are like the OS in our computers. Not from a functional point of view but from on obligatory view. If you by a PC that’s not made by Apple, it comes with Windows, Microsoft Windows. Macs come with Apple. And yes, you can BootCamp a Mac, and you can Linux a PC, and you can Parallels or VM them both to have multiple OS, and only a handful of uber-geeks do that, so it’s hardly worth mentioning and totally distracting from my point. And the point is a carrier obliges you to use their network and pay their traffic just as an OS provider. Use the stuff, pay the tax. Move along nothing to see here.

The big difference is the subsidy plan. Just like a drug dealer who says, “Here kid, the first one is free...”, the carriers say, “Here kid the phone is (almost) free, just sign here.” Maybe the analogy is more like the devil with the sign here part. Regardless of which metaphor we use the result is the same, you sign, and you are owned, locked in for a couple of years, which in today’s technology it’s bullet train ride to eternity.

To some however, that doesn’t seem too erroneous. Remember back in the days before mobile phones we had push-button phones tethered by a wire in our homes (and dial phones before that). Those phones were free too. Free to the consumer, you called the phone company (we only had one in those days) then they installed the phone and you got a monthly bill—and nowhere in that bill was there any mention of equipment cost. That came later when the federal government said there shall be competition in the land, go forth and flourish. Then equipment costs started to appear on the phone bill and we were allowed to go buy our own.

And we can buy our own phones today. You can go to the Apple store and buy one of those sealed little phones with the funny antenna and it’s yours. Now you can even go to a carrier other than AT&T in the US, or T-mobile in Germany. And you can buy an Android or Symbian or Windows phone and go to a carrier and get it connected —but not any carrier, just certain ones for certain phones—we must respect the religion.

So I will toddle off to the Verizon alter today or tomorrow and get my sacrament, and give my tithe and promise to continue giving it, till death do us part.

Or till a new shiny thing comes along.