Monday, July 30, 2012

Shopping Phone and Internet Plans....Again

Shopping your phone plan is a PITA, but worthwhile to do, now and then.

I am having trouble with my AT&T landline again.  I pay extra every month for call-forwarding-busy/don't answer, and in the last three month, someone at AT&T keeps resetting my call-forwarding number so that my calls don't forward.  This is frustrating, as customers call and if I don't answer or I am busy, they get a recording saying the number is not in service.   This is not good for business.

Are there alternatives to AT&T landlines?  Yes, oddly enough, and one of them is AT&T fiber optic.

Shopping phone plans, as well as cable, internet, and wireless, is hard to do, as the actual cost is obfuscated and pricing is anything but transparent.  If you go onto any service provider website, there are alarmingly low prices proffered, such as $29.99 a month!!! (with exclamation points).   But the catch is, of course, that (a) that is a six-month or 12-month promotional price, and (b) there are taxes and user fees added on, and of course, they can't tell you how much that will be.

Funny thing, but the airline industry tried that second tactic for years.  Finally, the government stepped in and said "prices are prices - POST YOUR ACTUAL PRICE!"    I just bought four round-trip tickets to Spain, and let me tell you, it was refreshing to be able to compare ACTUAL PRICES for a change and when I clicked on BUY NOW, the amount charged to my card was the amount on the screen.

Still think government regulation is a bad idea?   Some airlines, such as Spirit, Southwest, and Allegiant, thought so, and sued.  They Lost.   I suggest you boycott those airlines, as they likely are not providing really good deals anyway, if they have to resort to trickery to get you to buy a ticket (U.S. Airways seems to have the lowest prices of all the major carriers, consistently).

(of course, the air carriers did not sit on their hands.  There are now "a la carte" charges for everything from checking bags, to carry ons, to the "free" drinks, to even using a barf bag.  Pretty soon there will be a fee for having to breath other people's farts on the plane.   Classic marketing - take a flaw in a product and sell it as an add-on extra price "feature".)

So shopping and cross-shopping these plans is more nightmarish than going to a car dealer and saying "how much is this car?"   The price is an irrational number, and no two people seem to pay the same price, it seems.

I called Comcast, and the young lady answering the phone was actually helpful.  It took some prodding to get her out of her script.   The script says to sell the promotional pricing and that "we can't calculate the taxes and other fees".    The latter is, of course, bullshit, as their computers calculate these fees, every month, when they send out a bill to you.  The idea that they can't tell you the taxes and fees up-front is ridiculous.

On their website, they offer a number of "bundles" of services, including telephone, cable TV, and internet access, starting at $99 a month, but only for the first 12 months.  And these bundles do not include the various access charges, fees and taxes.   So, in other words, it will cost more - a whole lot more - to have these services.

How much more?  The regular price, for Cable TV, Landline Phone, and Internet Access, would be $155 a month, with  a $90 installation fee the first month.  This is including all the taxes and fees, which the operator was able to calculate for me.

I told her I didn't want cable, and she recalculated this to $110.90 a month.   This is about $30 more a month I am paying for twisted pair copper POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) and DSL modem (which runs about $83 a month).  However, it would be a feature upgrade for the phone and a dramatic speed increase for the modem (although we currently are happy with our current speed, which will stream movies on Netflix).

(Incidentally, comparing network speeds for DSL, Cable, and fiber optic is problematic.  Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Cable can be 5 times faster than DSL, provided your neighbors are not on it.  Cable is more like a party line, not a switched circuit, so you "share" bandwidth sometimes.  And of course, for all such services, the actual data rate is usually less than the posted numbers.  e.g., 3.0 Mbps works out to about 2.8 Mbps.  Still enough to stream movies, though.)

Comcast was an interesting option, but costing more is costing more, and $90 to install and $30 every month, adds up to $450 the first year, and $360 every year thereafter.  Now, again, this is the regular pricing, not the come-on "bundle" price that is only good for one year.

Also, the basic cable modem has no router or wireless, so I would have to take my old Cisco out of retirement and configure that.  A combined Modem/router is $100 extra on the install.

Again, you have to disregard the "bundle" pricing, as while it is a discount, it is only a temporal discount.   They are playing the classic game of getting you to think in terms of monthly costs, and not overall costs, and to think short-term and not long-term.   And unless you want to switch service providers every year (which may be one way of playing the game, I suppose) the savings are not real for the long-term.

AT&T has two options, traditional "twisted pair" regulated utility landline phone service, that is the same phone service you grandparents had.  They are also offering, in some areas, AT&T "Uverse" fiber-optic-to-pole service, which we have here on the island.  The fiber optic service, apparently not being part of a regulated utility, is not taxed the same as the land-line (according to the sales rep, consider the source).  Currently I pay about $69 a month for phone and DSL, which with taxes morphs into $83 every month, like clockwork.

Could I save on this Uverse thing?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Again, the fellow (who, ironically, was from the repair center - they must be on commission) tries to sell me on the "bundle discount pricing" and won't talk about how much the taxes and fees are, other than they are "less" than the fees and taxes for the regular phone line.

The prices are startling low on the bundles.  He is telling me $59.95 a month for six months or a year.  Yea, yea, yea,  what is the REAL price?   He claims it is $78 plus the unknown taxes.  Their website offers startlingly low prices of $29.95 (yea, right).  So, I figure I'd better call the sales office.

The problem with AT&T is compartmentalization.  Every department has a keyhole view of the world, and people you talk to cannot tell you anything about anything outside their narrow world view (wireless, internet, landline, uverse, long distance, calling card, repair, sales, main office, GoPhone, whatever).  And each has a separate 1-800 number to call, and you usually get transferred to a number of different people, several times, and are put on musical hold, several times.  It is frustrating.

So, after talking to a robot, going through a DTMF tree and being put on hold several times and listening to musical hold, I get through to an operator.   (You cannot get real pricing on the Internet and thus you have to call to get any real pricing information.)  AT&T Customer service is very poor.  Not that the people who answer the phone are bad (well, some are) but that you cannot get ahold of anyone without being on hold for so long that by the time you talk to someone, you are at wits end.

I finally get a nice young man from South Florida, named Tristian, who says he can switch me to Uverse service for $83 a month, including taxes.  He claims the phone service, which includes unlimited long distance in the USA and Canada, call forwarding and voicemail, is a flat $35 a month plus sales taxes, with no FCC fees.  The 6 Mbps fiber optic service is $43 a month as well.  These are the actual prices, not the "bundle" prices.  Total, with taxes, is about $83 a month, which is, oddly enough, what I am paying now.  Installation charges are waived and the $100 modem/router has a $100 rebate.

I ask him about the come-on pricing.  He says that as an existing AT&T customer, I do not qualify for the "bundle" pricing, but only the regular price.  The "bundles" are only for "conquest" customers only.

I mentioned to him that it would make sense, therefore, to switch to Comcast for a year, use their "bundle" pricing, and then switch back to AT&T as a "conquest" customer and do this switch every year.   He mentioned that a lot of people actually do that.   Sounds to me like the telcos are chasing their tales here - their bundle discounts encourage account churn.

When I return from vacation, I will investigate this further.  I would be interested to hear from others as to how they work this.  And please, no gushing endorsements about "$59.95 a month bundle plans!"   If you are going to post a comment, drop your drawers, get out a measuring stick, and let us know the real deal - the ACTUAL COST, with taxes, tags, and title.

Frankly, I think a similar regulation to the airline industry is needed in the telcom industry.  People should be able to shop on cost, without jumping through a lot of hoops.  It makes no sense, other than to marketers, to have prices that are obtuse, opaque, and impossible to determine - until you get the bill.

It this important?  Yes, it is.  Paying $100 a month for telecommunications is an obscene amount, and something that "bugs me" every month when I pay the bill.   Most people pay more - far more - for bundles of cable, phone, internet, and wireless - $200 a month or more.   The minute you stop letting stuff like this piss you off is the minute you start to slide toward inevitable bankruptcy.

And most people lie to themselves and others about the actual cost.  When it comes to things like gas mileage, penis size, or your cable or wireless bill, most people lie through their teeth.  I am not sure why, as they are only lying to themselves.

* * *

I am not sure that obfuscating prices really saves the telcos and cable companies money.  When you have to "call for price" it is a sign of a bad deal, usually.  And those calls cost them money as they have to pay operators to tell people what the real price actually would be.

A regulation would actually help these companies, as they could publish real prices online.  When your competitor snags half your customers with a come-on "bundle" price (because consumers are stupid) then your only choice in life is to do the same - put up fake prices and screw your own customer base.

Sometimes, a marketplace cries out for regulations - a neat and easily enforceable set of rules that everyone plays by, to compete on the merits, not trickery.