America’s Carriers Are Terrible. It’s Probably Your Fault.

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A few days ago I landed in England and, expecting little, slipped an old UK SIM card into my phone. I’d bought it when living in London five years ago, and hadn’t used it in more than a year. But to my amazement it was still active — as was the money I’d added to its pay-as-you-go account 16 months earlier…and then I received a friendly text message informing me that my data costs were now £1 per 100MB. Another SMS popped up when I emerged from the Channel Tunnel in France a few days later, informing me it would cost me 8p to send texts and 7p per minute to receive calls.

Can you imagine any of that happening with an American phone company? Or Canadian? North American carriers generally expire pay-as-you-go accounts after 90 days of inactivity, and it’s at best a struggle to get them to support data at all, much less seamlessly, much much less at that price. (Which isn’t even that great, by global standards; in India two years ago I was charged $1 for a full gigabyte.)

As for roaming, you’re very lucky to get American or Canadian pay-as-you-go accounts that can roam across that vast undefended border at all, and if you do, they’ll charge the proverbial arm and a leg. That same UK SIM card worked just fine in Kenya last year, and as I type this I’m about to land in Turkey, where I expect to receive another text informing me that my UK pay-as-you-go number continues to work just fine outside the EU, albeit more expensively. (Update: yep.)

What’s wrong with this picture? Why are America and Canada so unbelievably awful? Yeah, I’m being anecdotal, but there is all kinds of data to support the notion that cell service there is outlandishly expensive compared to almost all of the rest of the developed world. (And worse than a lot of the developing world, too.)

Part of it is laissez-faire capitalism run amok. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a staunch defender of capitalism…that is, well-regulated capitalism. Until 2008 that was a hard row to hoe among many of my friends, but that recent embarrassing spate of financial cataclysms have made it much easer. Why is my UK SIM card relatively cheap to use in France? Because EU regulators insisted on it. Why are America’s carriers so parasitical, predatory, gouging and user-hostile? Because they can be, which in large part means because their regulators (including, alas, Canada’s CRTC) don’t insist on much of anything.

Oh, sorry, no, my mistake. They do insist on perpetuating this state of affairs. Consider the recent breathtakingly wrong decision to make it illegal under the DMCA to unlock your phone. This was one of those classic bureaucratic catastrophes: every individual step that led to it doubtless made sense to the people involved, who were too close to their system to take a step back and notice that its actual outcome was complete insanity. If anything it should should be illegal to lock phones, not unlock them. This is regulatory capture taken to new heights of Stockholm-Syndrome madness.

And yet. At the end of the day the true power lies not with the carriers, but with their customers. Alas, American and Canadian customers seem to have been hypnotized into a kind of learned helplessness where they just sit there and silently accept locked phones, bloated Kafkaesque pricing plans, insane roaming charges, Android phones stuffed with crapware, and two- or even three-year locked-in contracts.

But they don’t have to. That’s what’s so infuriating. You too could buy an unlocked phone — an unlocked Nexus 4, which is a terrific phone, costs all of $299! (And I have high hopes that Google’s rumored new X Phone initiative will be even cheaper.) You too could switch to T-Mobile’s monthly pricing plan, or Straight Talk’s, instead of signing a contract. You’d more than make back the upfront costs of the unlocked phone in less than a year. And if enough people did it, the carriers would be forced to compete on quality and improve their pricing, rather than rely on their customers’ passive despair.

The logical conclusion is that if your phone is locked, or if you’re on a multi-year contract, then you have no right to complain about your terrible carrier — because you’re part of the problem. “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” In fact, you’re ruining it for the rest of us. Thanks.

But it’s not too late for redemption. Just repeat after me: “I solemnly swear that I will never buy a locked phone or sign a multi-year phone contract again.” And when your current contract expires, do just that. Maybe, just maybe, with your help, we can finally defeat these gargantuan economic tapeworms called AT&T, Verizon, Rogers and Bell — and finally catch up with the civilized world.

Image credit: Tapeworm, by Rhys Ormond, on Flickr.