Bell’s Blues

Google denied selling out network neutrality with Verizon earlier this month but the ballistic blogosphere bucked that.

You may recall that Google and Verizon unveiled a plan on August 9 that would prohibit wireline operators from discriminating on the open Internet but proposed a second, closed (mobile) Internet where they could do just that.

Turns out that BP’s Tony Hayward has assumed the helm of the joint GOOG-VZ P.R. department.

[Important Note: The following column appeared under this same title in the Burlington Free Press in March of 1997.]

“Hang on. I dropped the phone.”

Like the toilet, the telephone is the household appliance that must perform faithfully every time you need to make a call.

Once upon a time the telephone came one style (Durable Dial), one color (Bell Black). One monopoly served everyone. Local calls were unlimited, operators assisted, phone bills were reasonable, and the phones stood up to the occasional gambol on the kitchen floor.

Then, with a swipe of the judicial pen, “Ma Bell” split into AT&T and all the regional Baby Bells like New England Bell. Phone bills soared. We all had to buy cheap phones that bounce poorly. Trust in the phone company went down the toilet.

Heard at a Vermont IGA, “Their minutes last 53 seconds.”

[Historical Note: New England Bell spawned NYNEX which in turn merged with Bell Atlantic and spawned Verizon which sold out to Fairpoint which went bankrupt. See how that works?]

Thanks to the Vermont Telecommunications Agreement, NYNEX gave us measured service. In phone company parlance, measured service counts each instant of local phone use. Then they bill us. NYNEX sold measured service to Vermonters by saying it controls our local telephone costs.

Sure. The old way, we paid $19.63 every month.

Measured service means we can’t “pay any more that $26.67.” If you manage not to use their minimum daily allowance, you’ll pay only $19.52.

Here’s the scoop. NYNEX “gives” us a $6.95 worth of message units each month. Every message unit amounts to one minute on the phone. More or less. When you use more message units, NYNEX bills you. NYNEX charges you for each whole minute’s worth if you use even a single second. Even if you get a wrong number. If I use less than my allotment, does NYNEX give me a discount? No. They just make more profit.

Who counts those minutes? The electric company puts their meters where we can see them. When I pump gasoline into my car, the readout tells me how much in thousandths of gallons. I’ve always wondered why I need that kind of precision.

I installed a phone timer to record every outgoing call; the log shows whether the call is peak or off-peak. The local usage charge on my bill has never come within 10% of the total shown in the log. Since NYNEX apparently cannot count, I guess I do need the gas pump kind of precision in my phone bill. Wasn’t NYNEX forced to return a $15 million excess profit?

Maybe that’s why they needed an 8.2% rate increase [then].

Measured service is such a delicious oxymoron. It positions its purveyors perfectly in a world where decamping lovers practice “cruel kindness,” a computer crash can cause a “partial shutdown” in your life, and “call answering” leads to a heartfelt conversation with a computer voice.

Almost everyone has a phone story. Your state Public Service Board wants to hear yours. Speak up at public hearings; write to them in your state capitol. If one or two of us sing loud and long, it might sound like a song from Woodstock. If a hundred of us serenade them, they’ll think it’s a movement. And if they get letters by the mailbag, who knows, NYNEX might get some competition. With more than one dial tone provider looking for your business, Vermonters might get nicer phone bills.

There is another way. A NYNEX representative told me she has had measured service for a few years, and it doesn’t cost her any extra.

“How so?” I asked.

“I don’t make any calls.”

Back to Verizon and Google. The Internet will be open but not the mobile Internet.

The big players say it is to protect bandwidth.

Some of the talking heads agree and note it is to protect (phone company) revenue.

The Media and Democracy Coalition, for example, noted that this have-have not system “could further widen the digital divide, particularly for those that rely primarily or exclusively on wireless Internet access, as do many individuals in rural areas, and many low-income consumers. It may also create a barrier to entry by independent creators, entrepreneurs and startups.”

That’s true but there is a bigger issue.

Remember the NYNEX message units? Verizon does. You pay them every time you dial your cellular phone.

Bank of America will test a system that bills consumers for purchases they make with their mobile phones. The initial mobile payments test, beginning in New York City next month, includes BP gas stations, New York City taxis, Burger King and McDonald’s restaurants, Home Depot, and the Walgreen’s and CVS drug store chains.

Mobile payments. Phone company collectors with baseball bats.

Mobile payments are especially popular in Asia and Europe where consumer use smartphones to pay for goods and services. The billing uses SMS-based transactions, “direct mobile billing,” mobile web payments (WAP), or the fastest-growing contactless NFC (Near Field Communication). Most purchases are for digital goods (music and videos, ebooks, online games, and the like), bus fares or parking meters, and burgers.

Experts say the market for mobile payments will exceed $600 billion globally in less than three years. That’s almost as much as the AIG bailout.

And you think Google and Verizon aren’t slobbering to skim that?

Remember the former Soviet republic of Moldova? About the same time in 1997 that I reported the NYNEX fleecing of Vermonters, that tiny country gave us the Moldovan horse, a Trojan horse that hijacked customers’ modems and dialed up Eastern Europe, at tens or hundreds or even a thousand dollars per minute. Victims ended up with phone bills that cost more than their cars.

AT&T’s Fraud Control Group got involved. The FTC investigated intensively. And while that was going on the phone company mafia kept collecting on those thousand-dollar phone bills.

Are these the peeps you want in charge of your Visa bill?

Google says their mobile Internet plan is “compromising not selling out.”

Uh huh. And NYNEX said the check was in the mail and they won’t … well, you know the rest.

Breaking News:
Verizon Wireless will pay about $90 million to 15 million cellphone customers who were wrongly charged in one of the largest-ever refunds by a telecommunications company.

2 thoughts on “Bell’s Blues

  1. As a non-paid advocate and dedicated user of mobile services I must protest your insinuation that mobile carriers use physical force and or intimidation to collect past due accounts. Currently the preferred method is simply to send these valued customers a dozen eggs from Wright County Eggs in appreciation of their continuing loyalty along with a request for payment!

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