Historically, the consumer has been at a disadvantage in dealing with manufacturers and retailers. This is because the manufacturers and retailers had a decent handle on the flow of information, or at least moreso than the consumer. The Internet, as we know, has democratized information, making it available to the masses.
The problem is, this information can’t possibly reach everyone. So it is the responsibility of those who have heard to spread the message to anyone else who wants to hear. This is what we aim to do with Consumer Issues Corner. So if you read this, and know someone who might benefit from the knowledge herein, pass it along.
Today, we’re looking at Best Buy’s Bluetooth pairing rip-off, the Cell Tax Fairness Act, and the practice of unlocking phones.
Best Buy and your Bluetooth headset
Did you know that Bluetooth can be used for far more than just a wireless headset for your cell phone? It actually services a number of purposes, including wireless file transfers (though they’re not necessarily secure transfers). Verizon was actually sued back in 2005 because they crippled Bluetooth file sharing, which it claimed was in conflict with its Get It Now software. Still, today the most common use of Bluetooth is for wireless headsets. These are becoming more common as states are banning the use of handheld devices while driving.
To find out your state’s laws, check this nifty chart. So as more states enact these laws, the demand for Bluetooth headsets naturally rises. The problem is that some people, usually the less tech savvy among us, have problems with the process of pairing a Bluetooth headset with their handset. We learned yesterday that Best Buys in California are charging $10 for Bluetooth pairing.
This, of course, is utterly ridiculous, and should be met with consumer revolt. Instead, it appears that they’re finding customers, because Bluetooth devices are notoriously difficult for lay people to pair. So how can we stick it to Best Buy? Simply by learning to pair your own Bluetooth to your own phone. Clearly, this is not a simple endeavor, or else everyone would be doing it, and Best Buy couldn’t extort $10 from you.
If you’re not the tech-savvy type, do not buy your Bluetooth at Best Buy. I recommend going to an independent cell phone retailer — that is, not a corporate store. They’ll be more than glad to pair your Bluetooth once you make the purchase. Even a corporate store will be more apt to just do it and get you out of the door. No one wants to field a call later in the day from someone who has failed to pair their Bluetooth. The other option, and part of me hates to dole out this advice, is to read the manual.
As I mentioned yesterday, I bought a Bluetooth with my new phone in January — a Jabra, which is quite a nice model. She offered to pair it, noting that many of her customers would call back later in the day after purchasing one for help on pairing. Not letting my male pride be flattened, I took it home to do myself. After opening the instruction manual, I had it paired in literally 30 seconds. This isn’t to say that the process will be easy for everyone. Rather, it’s to say that by just looking at the instructions and following them can save you $10. There’s no reason for that money to end up in the hands of Best Buy.
Cell Tax Fairness Act
This has been floating around in the Senate since about April, but last Friday Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) introduced the Cell Tax Fairness Act. The gist of it is that you, the consumer, are being clobbered over the head with excessive taxes and fees by local and state entities. What follows is somewhat biased, but I hope that most people can follow the argument.
It seems we’re being taxed everywhere we look. Not only do we feed money to the government from our overall income and when we purchase nonessential goods, but we’re also assessed further taxes on gasoline, cigarettes, and other purchases. Yes, that includes cell phone services. Yet, are we seeing any benefit from it? I’ll attempt to explain the reason for taxation on things like gas and cigarettes. Basically, it’s something that the government doesn’t want you to do, yet cannot reasonably limit or prohibit. There would be public outcry if the government tried to ration gas where there is no crisis, and there would be similar outcry if they tried to ban cigarettes and other tobacco products. So the government levies a fee every time a citizen buys such a product.
Theoretically this is supposed to deter people, but in practice it’s just another way for the government to make more money. Cell phone service, though, is a bit different, in that it is becoming an essential part of our daily communication. So why are we taxing this? Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to use cellular services?
It seems to me that the more connected we all are, the more opportunities we can create. There has even been a study which concludes that poor people benefit from cell phone usage, where they had none before. So not only does this seem like an area that shouldn’t be overtaxed, it seems like an area, if anything, that should be subsidized. (Of course, there was the Universal Service Fund, which had big carriers subsidize smaller carriers’ forays into rural areas.
This was capped
We should always be working to make communication media cheaper, and a further step would be to eliminate all taxes on cell phones.
Unlocking your cell phone
Unfortunately, the practice of cell phone unlocking is not only not widespread in the U.S., it’s also not very effective. While the rest of the world runs on GSM technology and its transportable SIM cards, the U.S. wireless market is currently dominated by CDMA carriers. There is no SIM card for use on these networks, making the unlocking process far more difficult. Further, the two major networks, Verizon and Sprint, have measure preventing phones from other providers from being activated on their networks. How effective these measures are, I’m not sure.
But they’re there. And it’s making it difficult to continue using the phone that you bought. You may hear big carriers talk about network integrity, and how they can’t let other devices on the network since they might disrupt everyone else. Yet devices abroad aren’t necessarily locked to a certain carrier, and there aren’t widespread reports of network abuse. More accurately, these are platitudes spit at you by cell carriers to make you see things their way.
Problem is, “their way” is a vehicle for generating profits. If you can’t use phones from another network, clearly you have to buy a new phone from the new carrier. And, knowing the commissions these carriers pay on new handset purchases, this is good for the carrier, subsidy or not. There is a chance, albeit remote, that a number of CDMA carriers will move to offer a type of unlocking service.
This started when MetroPCS, a prepaid carrier which offers unlimited minutes for a flat monthly rate, began offering an unlock service. Dubbed MetroFlash, the program allows you to take your existing CDMA phone to a MetroPCS retailer, where they will reflash the phone for activation on the MetroPCS network. The company which performs this service, Houdinisoft, is said to be in talks with a number of other carriers to provide similar services.
If true, this could revolutionize cell phones in America. Which leads me to believe that it will not happen. Maybe as we move towards a 4G LTE infrastructure, we’ll see the return of the SIM and the unlockable phone. But for now, it looks like when you buy a phone, you’re stuck with the network. That is, unless you have AT&T or T-Mobile, in which case you can find a way to unlock your phone and migrate between the two networks.
Even then, you’re limited to just the two
More consumer issues to come
Have any cell phone consumer issues that are bothering the crap out of you? Send ‘em in. The addy is jpawlikowski, and then that little at sign, goingcellular dot com. Sorry for parsing it like that; I get enough junkmail as it is.