Smartphones are wonderful devices capable of serving us in so many ways, but there’s a horrible, inescapable downside to owning one: Cell phone carriers. The need to sign up with a carrier to get mobile service can suck a lot of the fun out of owning a smartphone and a lot of the money out of your pocket. Competition is supposed drive prices down and standards up, but if you need proof that this theory doesn’t always pan out, the big carriers are ready to provide it.
The list of carrier sins is long — so long that the 10 I’m about to bemoan don’t constitute a comprehensive list. While some carriers are certainly better than others — it might be more accurate to say some carriers are less bad than others — I don’t think there’s a carrier out there that doesn’t engage in at least a few of these pernicious practices.
It’s not unusual for features that come as standard on your phone to be blocked by carriers. There’s a good chance your phone supports VoLTE or Wi-Fi calling, for example, but it may not appear as an option in the settings because your carrier is blocking it. If you live in an area with a weak signal, or perhaps your house or office blocks your signal, then Wi-Fi calling can ensure that you’re still able to make and receive calls. Carriers frequently block the service, unless you buy a phone from them or have a specific type of contract. They also sometimes prevent MVNOs from offering it — the smaller carriers that hire their networks and tend to offer better deals — presumably to increase their own allure.
The fact that carriers block tethering apps, because they don’t want you to use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot, has been a source of annoyance for years, but at least the reason for it is clear — they don’t want you using more data (even if you have paid for it) because it costs them money to provide. Blocking Wi-Fi calling just seems needlessly spiteful. While it’s all ultimately about boosting their own profits, blocking something that many people need to be able to use their phone, something which costs carriers nothing and is already provided by the platform, is a clear sign carriers don’t care about their customers.
When carriers say “unlimited” what they actually mean is “limited.” Even the best unlimited data plans come with caps and limits, often described as “fair use” limits, beyond which your data speed is throttled. It’s common practice to limit video quality, even on the most expensive plans, and some carriers will specifically limit other types of streaming like music and games. What constitutes fair use is completely up to the carriers and the limits they apply vary widely. Your chance of being throttled is also going to be impacted by how busy the network is, so time of day and where you are factors in heavily.
There’s also the net neutrality issue. The idea that you should have unfettered, equal access to sites and services online was protected by regulations until they were repealed in 2017, meaning that internet providers, like cell phone carriers, are free to throttle certain websites or services. For example, they may choose to offer top speed access to their own content streaming service and nerf the competition. The debate over net neutrality continues and there’s a chance fresh regulations will be brought in, but right now carriers are free to throttle anything they don’t profit from, and so they are throttling services like Netflix and YouTube.
Most carriers offer a bewildering array of different plans with all sorts of strange conditions and exceptions. Even the best cell phone plans are far from straightforward and it’s going to take some reading and research to identify the best deal for you. There’s no fixed line price — they tend to get cheaper the more you take — so individuals get the worst deals. Carriers know exactly what they’re doing and it’s no accident.
If you don’t take the time to do your homework, then there’s a good chance you’ll end up on a contract that doesn’t represent the best value for your needs. The names of most plans don’t help — do you want “beyond” or “above” unlimited? — so you have to read the bullet point lists to find out what they actually constitute and dig into the small print to find seemingly random exceptions.
You may think that buying a new phone entitles you to decide what apps should be on it, but if you buy from a carrier you’d be wrong. Carriers include all manner of unwanted bloatware on the devices they sell or lease. To make matters worse, they often prevent you from being able to uninstall their apps. You can always disable bloatware on Android, which should prevent it from using system resources, but it’s still going to take up storage space on your phone. It’s bad enough that bloatware you don’t want, left unchecked, will use up processing power and battery life, as well as precious storage space, but in some cases bloatware causes security problems, too.
“Oops, it looks like something went wrong.” It’s horribly common to load up your carrier app to try and check on your latest bill, or even to add a new line or upgrade your phone, only to be met with some kind of error message. Take a look at the forum of any major cell phone service provider and you’ll find countless complaints about how their apps don’t work properly. Carrier app reviews in the Play Store reveal the same thing. Not only do they frequently fail to load properly, they often feature demented design that seems to be intentionally burying features you might want to access under layers of nonsensically named menu settings.
Carriers want to tie you down to their service plans when you buy a phone, so they often lock devices onto their network, meaning you can’t use them on another network without unlocking them first. Carriers don’t want you to unlock your phone because they don’t want you to switch to a different service provider. This used to be justified by carriers on the basis that they offered subsidized phones as part of your contract, back when service and phone price were tied together in a single monthly payment.
In fact, it was even illegal to unlock your phone without carrier permission for a while. Nowadays, contracts have changed, so service and phone are separate. If you buy a phone from a carrier now, they’ll often let you pay the full cost of it spread across monthly payments — it’s usually a 0% credit agreement on the basis that you take a service plan as well, but the full terms are always detailed and confusing.
It’s fair enough to expect you to pay for your phone, but even after you meet their terms it can be annoyingly difficult to get it unlocked. It is easier now than it used to be, but we have a guide on how to unlock a phone on every carrier which illustrates the problem. Some carriers deliberately force you to call them because it gives them a chance to try and retain you as a customer.
You may feel this is justified and it’s certainly understandable that carriers don’t want to lose customers, but making switching into as big a headache as possible is an underhanded strategy to try and prevent you from doing it. While unlocking your phone is generally a bit easier in the U.K. and can often be done through a website or by texting, taking your number with you wasn’t until recently. Ofcom, the telecoms watchdog in the U.K. just took action in this area with a new text-to-switch scheme that forces carriers to provide your PAC (porting authorization code) in a text message if you send them a text requesting it. You can then give this PAC to your new provider and continue to use the same mobile number as before.
There’s really no reason it shouldn’t be easy and painless to switch from one carrier to another, but that’s rarely how it works out. You can expect to be quizzed on why you’re leaving and pressured to stay. Often the best deals are only offered to customers who threaten to leave. I recently went through this process, calling my current provider to ask them if they could match a deal I had seen elsewhere — they told me it was impossible. I went ahead and canceled the service, but two days later received a call from them with a new offer that was even better than what I had originally asked for. So, to get the deal I wanted I had to cancel my current service and sign up with a new provider, then and only then did I get a better offer from my current provider who also advised me I could cancel the new provider as part of the 30-day cooling off period. Seems like a lot of wasted time all around.
A New York Times piece from May 2018 revealed that major carriers had been selling location data to marketers and other companies and the data they sold had been used to track people’s cell phones without a court order. All the carriers promised to look into it and make sure it didn’t happen again, but earlier this year carriers were caught out again, selling customers’ location data to third-parties, which were then, it turned out, selling the data on to other third-parties, making it possible for a bounty hunter to pay $300 and successfully track down a reporter’s device.
This meant that anyone with your number could track your location by paying to use a shady online service — no need for a warrant or any official permission. All the major U.S. carriers claim they’ve stopped doing this now.
Hitting you with hidden charges
The prices that carriers advertise rarely include the cost of taxes and additional fees. Carriers are masters at sneakily adding all manner of additional fees. There are a bunch of taxes and governmental surcharges, depending on your state, that carriers pass along to you, but you’ll also find activation fees, administration fees, and depending on your contract and usage there might be overage fees and different service fees. In 2018, AT&T more than doubled its administration fee with scant explanation, bolstering its coffers to the tune of $800 million a year.
One of the most pernicious charges, because it disproportionately hits the elderly and disadvantaged, is pay-by-phone fees. Verizon charges a $7 Agent Assistance Fee — it actually charges you to pay your bill if you insist on doing it by phone. Verizon previously floated the idea of a $2 convenience fee in 2011 if you insisted on paying your bill manually at the end of each month (either online or by phone), a charge that would be waived if you signed up for Autopay. The convenience fee was dropped after an uproar, but the pay-by-phone charges came in and have climbed enormously. Many carriers also charge convenience fees if you insist on paying in person at one of their stores.
Even once you’ve decided to leave your carrier you can expect to be stung on the way out the door. Cancellation charges can be brutal, so check your contract carefully before making a move. It’s also common practice for carriers is to refuse to pay prorated credits; they’ll charge you for a full month of service no matter when you cancel, even if you cancel one day in you’ll be charged for the full month, so be careful about the timing if you switch carriers.
When my elderly mother-in-law made the mistake of going into a carrier store recently she was signed up for a service plan well beyond her requirements and sold an expensive phone that she definitely doesn’t need. Despite my wife’s frequent protestations, her mother still insists on turning her smartphone off when she isn’t using it, ensuring that no one can ever call her. Pushing people to buy bigger service plans and more expensive phones and pressuring them to sign two-year contracts on the spot is an inevitable side-effect of a commission-based sales structure, but it’s also horribly exploitative. I have felt severely and uncomfortably pressured by carrier sales staff at times and I’m a tech journalist who specializes in smartphones. If you’re uncertain what you need, it’s frighteningly easy to get ripped off.
The fact that none of the problems on this list will surprise you is a sad indictment of the industry and how accustomed we are to being gouged, misled, and mistreated. There’s plenty of room here for a new service provider to come in and do things right, but the major carriers have a virtual oligopoly going. You can always buy an unlocked phone and check out some of the best MVNOs, though many of them are owned by the major carriers, but there is a disappointing lack of choice for long-suffering smartphone owners who’ve had enough of their carrier.
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