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My T-Mobile bill and what’s wrong with American democracy

It’s 2010, and that means that a hip yuppie like myself doesn’t bother to open, let alone read, something as mundane as my cellular phone bill. Why would I, when I can establish automatic recurring billing from my checking account with around five clicks? They still send the paper bills, though — I haven’t opted out of them yet, because for some reason I can’t shake the feeling that paper is somehow more authentic and reliable than an electronic record (although my entire livelihood depends on this not being the case). Today I finally sifted through the drift of these bills and similar detritus on my desk, and upon reading one of them became so incensed that I felt moved to write this post. Below is an excerpt from the bill in question, on which I have helpfully outlined the object of my anger in red:

what's wrong with this picture?

Let’s leave aside, for now, the fact that T-Mobile feels justified in differentiating text-message data from all other types of data, and charging separately for it. Enough has been written about that elsewhere (although I’ll return with my own screed later). I want to concentrate on the bottom weasel-text, reproduced here for the googles of the internet, which as of this writing don’t search inside images for text.

Fee we collect and retain to help cover our costs related to funding and complying with government mandates, programs, and obligations. [Oxford comma mine]

Let’s get something straight: despite the best efforts of Ronald Reagan and his idolaters of the last 30 years, every company must comply with government mandates, programs, and obligations. I’m talking about wasteful and oppressive regulations that cripple our job-creating small businesses, such as:

  • Don’t dump carcinogens into rivers (ok, but not too much or we’ll fine you)
  • Don’t charge an interest rate above 300%, no matter how dumb your mark (or if you do, at least call it a “payday loan” and make sure they’re a poor racial minority)
  • Don’t employ children to mine coal (we know, their small hands can get more places, but people kind of hate child labor)

Every company must find a way to deal with the increased cost of doing business that regulation imposes, which may include passing the bill onto customers in one form or another. But few companies would be so gauche as to bill me a line-item for it. And it really does make my blood boil. In one asterisked footnote, T-Mobile has managed to neatly invoke 30 years of discredited free-market claptrap, that zombie ideology that just won’t die, no matter how many bullets to the head it takes. Their buck-passing reinforces this ideology’s central tenet, that government regulation of any sort is an unnecessary evil that raises prices for customers and fetters business. And of course, as with all invocations of this ideology, the potential benefits of such regulation aren’t mentioned, and certainly not in the same paragraph as the costs.

I don’t exactly envy T-Mobile and the other telcos their fate as the maintainers of expensive data lines with cutthroat operating margins, but that doesn’t excuse this kind of behavior. And in any case, their billing practices makes it hard to sympathize with them. Consider what I paid for voice, text, and data last month:

texts are expensive

So for 138.37 MB of data (internet access), I paid $30.00. That comes out to $0.22 / MB. For the voice, assuming the most generous audio codecs in existence, I paid $39.99 for 222.89 MB of voice data, a rate of $0.17 / MB. For texts, I paid $10.00 for 0.015 MB of data (98 messages at 160B each), a rate of $668.73 / MB. It should be noted that since I spend nearly every waking moment in easy reach of a broadband connection and don’t have any friends, I use far less voice and data than most smart-phone owners, so the typical rates for those two types of data would be even lower. In summary, T-Mobile has no problem charging me:

  • $0.17 / MB, if it’s a phone call
  • $0.22 / MB, if it’s a webpage
  • $658.73 / MB, if it’s a text message

Yessiree, nothing illogical or unethical about this pricing scheme, government regulators! Now go pick on the logging industry before we add some more anti-government propaganda to our next billing statement.

Posted in Politics, Technology.

2 Responses

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  1. Matt Blancarte says

    Interesting analysis. It’s worth noting that your text usage is not even close to the average customer. I send and receive about 2000 per month. The gift/curse of having a chatty girlfriend, I suppose.

    Start sending videos and images and $/MB will go way down. :)

    Reminds me of billing from car shops. They charge extra for “waste disposal.” Give me a break.

  2. Michael says

    Thanks for the post.

    Just noticed it on my bill today. Pretty ridiculous to me that companies are coming under so much regulation that they actually are charging extra for it.

    In a twisted way though, I applaud T-Mobile for pointing out the costs of regulation. No one in Washington likes to highlight the reality that all regulatory costs really end up getting passed onto the consumer. All companies are charging more for the costs of complying with the regulatory regime they have to operate under; at least T-Mobile has the guts to let consumers know how much its costing them.

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