Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Telecommunications Charges

Many folks spend hundreds of dollars a month just on communications.

A friend of mine has gone over to the dark side.  They bought smart phones.  Not only that, they bought the most expensive smart phones possible - iPhones.

The cost?  $99 each (subsidized by the contract) and a $160 a month user fee (for two phones) that they will admit to.   I'm willing to bet it is higher with taxes and all the other junk fees they add on.

In addition to the smart phone, they have a land-line, with unlimited long distance and an overseas calling plan.  That's another $80 a month right there.

And then they have Internet Cable Modem and Cable TV, which runs another $120.

All told, this comes up to $360 a month, just to communicate. 

That is a lot of money.   That's $4320 a year!  That's enough to buy a freaking car!

But it gave me pause to think about my own costs.

We were paying $55 a month for UVERSE service, including a phone line (no overseas calls, however, we use an AT&T calling card for that).   After the introduction period, it went up to $85 a month.  And that's the billed amount - with all the fees and taxes.  No self-deception here. We also pay $200 a year for AT&T GoPhone service, or about $17 a month for two phones and 1000 minutes a year (each) that we don't use all of (it rolls over).

Needless to say, we don't have Cable TV.   Unplugging from that nonsense is the smartest thing anyone can do, in this day and age.   It just hurts your brain.

So our overall communications cost is $102 a month.   To me, that is outrageous.   It is far less than the $360 a month our friends and neighbors pay, when you add up the cost of all their plans.

Bear in mind that $360 a month is a car payment.  Invested over a lifetime of work at 7% it yields $1,320,847.61 in your 401(k) plan.  Hell, even after ten years, it comes to $63,865.15

A million bucks - all so you can annoy your friends with a smart phone and crash your car while texting.

And guess who has bubkis in their 401(k) plan?  Yea, my friend with the new iPhone!   He hopes to inherit, so he can retire.  Hope that works out, because he has no "Plan B" whatsoever.  If Dad changes his will, well, my friend will have to eat that iPhone.

Sadly, most middle-class Americans are like my friends.  They complain about being poor, in an e-mail "sent from my iPhone."   Apple has done a good job of cleaning out America's wallets!

But getting back to my costs, some readers in the past have recommended some cheaper alternatives to what I am using right now.  Yes, my costs are low - they could be lower.  Up until now, I haven't explored these cheaper options.

Tracphone runs a 5-cents-a-minute plan, which is half than of AT&T GoPhone.  I could save $100 a year (or be able to talk more, the latter being unappealing) by switching to a TracPhone.

netTalk offers phone service for as little as $27 a year.   That's right - per year - for their VoIP service.  Sort of makes Vonage look sick - and is about 1/12th the cost of AT&T UVERSE phone service, while offering more unlimited coverage in the US and Canada.  That's a savings of about $300 a year right there.

Of course, I lose my $5-a-month "bundling" discount with UVERSE, so that drops the savings to $240 a year.  But we are talking unlimited long distance in the US and Canada, whereas UVERSE has 250 minutes (200 for new subscribers) for the USA only.

So, I will bite the bullet and try netTALK and see how it works out.  Even with the router, it comes to $42 for a year's service (use the coupon code CALLMOM for May for free shipping and 10% off).

They cannot port my old number to netTALK, which is OK with me.  Most complaints about the system come from people trying to port numbers.   Besides, I can run both systems in parallel for a month or two and see if I want to switch over (we have a four-line phone system that currently runs UVERSE on line one, and GoPhone on Line 2, through a docking station).   Plenty of room for line 3.

What got me started on this was poor AT&T Customer Service.   I set the UVERSE phone to "block outgoing international calls" as we use an AT&T calling card for that (cheaper than an "international calling plan" which has a staggering monthly fee and a per-minute fee higher than most calling cards).   But for some reason, it doesn't block outgoing calls to Canada.  If you make a call accidentally, well, they sock you.  Nice folks at AT&T!

Worse yet, they put a "notice" on my account when I log in, telling me that I made an international call (after setting "International Call Blocking" to ON a year ago!) and that I will be charged extra.  But hey, they cheekily recommend, why not upgrade to a higher level of service?   You see where they are going with this.   When I call customer service to complain, guess what?  They try to sell me an "international plan".

Thank you for choosing AT&T. A representative will be with you shortly.
You are now chatting with Alex.
Alex: Hello my name is Alex. Thank you for allowing me to be your specialist today. How may I assist you?
Robert Platt Bell: I received a notice that someone in our home made an international call, and that we do not have an international plan. I use an AT&T calling card for international calls. I set International CALL BLOCKING to ON for my home phone. For some reason, this is NOT BLOCKING calls overseas. I believe the calls were made to Canada.
Alex: Let me check that for you Robert.
Alex: Please allow me a moment, while I access your account.
Alex: In order to protect your private information, please provide the passcode on your U-verse account.  This is a four-digit numeric passcode that you established for account security.
Robert Platt Bell: Passcode?
Alex: Yes, it is of 4-digit.
Robert Platt Bell: I don't recall setting up any passcode. I have a passWORD. My passcode for voicemail is **** is that it?
Alex: Yes, you are correct.
Alex: It has been set up by you while ordering your product.
Robert Platt Bell: Is that the passcode? I have no record of such a passcode. The account was set up a while ago.
Alex: Yes, it is XXXX.
Robert Platt Bell: You mean ****?
Alex: I am sorry*
Robert Platt Bell: I made a note of that for future reference.
Alex: Yes, I meant ****
Alex: Okay.
Robert Platt Bell: How do I get International Call Blocking to Block calls to Canada?
Robert Platt Bell: And how much did the calls made cost me? Are they charged by minutes or by $$$? I am on the 250-minute plan.
Alex: I have a better deal for you.
Alex: I have reviewed your account and I can see that you current have Voice -250 plan for your U-verse homephone in which you get upto 250 minutes of calling per month.
Robert Platt Bell: I don't want to buy a calling plan, I want to BLOCK INTERNATIONAL calls.
Alex: I can understand your concern.
Alex: I can provide you The U-verse Voice Unlimited plan provides unlimited calling within the U.S., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Marians [sic], and Canada for $35.00 per month.
Robert Platt Bell: So why didn't it BLOCK my outgoing call to Canada?
Robert Platt Bell: Who the heck lives in Guam?
Alex: You will get unlimited calls to Canada Robert, and also within U.S. too
Alex: So you will not have to worry about the limit of the calls.
Alex: I would like to get you in direct contact with a technical support expert for U-verse service. I apologize that I am unable to assist you.  Allow me a moment to connect you to an expert who will be able to assist you with your account. The agent will have access to all the information you have provided me already.
Please wait while I transfer the chat to the appropriate group.
You are now chatting with 'Anurag'
Anurag: Thank you for contacting AT&T, my name is Anurag. Please allow me a moment to review the information you have provided.
Robert Platt Bell: For some reason INTERNATIONAL CALL BLOCKING is not blocking calls to Canada. I received a message that someone in my house made a call to Canada and I would be charged *EXTRA* for this.
At that point, the AT&T UVERSE modem mysteriously crashed.  Funny how that works!

I finally got another chat going, and the new tech said, "It can't be done".  They charge you extra for international calls to Canada, but if you set outgoing international calls to BLOCKED, it doesn't block them.   Canada is "international" when they want to charge you money, but domestic, when it comes to call blocking.

So, I am thinking, maybe go with this netTALK and switch to a cable Modem through those lovely bastards at COMCAST.   Work the "introductory offer" for a year and then switch to UVERSE and so the same all over again.

For $300 or so a year?  Yea, it's worth it.  Maybe not as much savings as $300 a month, but you gotta keep your eyes open for the best prices, otherwise, they win.