Saturday, March 5, 2022

Affordable Connectivity Program (Teething Pains)

You needn't spend a lot of money on cell phone service.  And if you are "poor" it may even be free.

I recently wrote about the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) which was the successor to the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program started during the pandemic.  This is NOT the same thing as "Lifeline" (Obamaphone) service which was started under Reagan with landlines.  Obamaphone requires you be a beneficiary of some other program (e.g., Food Stamps) or have an income near or below the poverty line.

The EBB program has expired and the ACP program (which is not a generous) replaces it.  It knocks $30 a month off your phone bill if you qualify, which means your income is below about twice the poverty line. You can apply online and submit a copy of your tax return and you'll get a notice within a few hours (if that) telling whether you qualify.  As my income for 2020 was pretty low, I qualified.

But then what?  As I noted in my previous posting, I thought about getting a 5G mobile hotspot with 100GB of data, which costs $55 a month normally, but would be $25 a month with the ACP.  Presently, we have 20 GB of hotspot data as an "add on" to our existing phones, which costs $20 a month combined.  For an additional $5, we could drop the 20GB and have a ton of hotspot (Internet Service) which we could use on computers, televisions, laptops, pad devices, "smart" home appliances or anything else that you might connect to the internet with a conventional router - AND it would be portable as well!

Well, that was the theory, anyway.

I went back to the AT&T site and plugged in my confirmation number from the ACP people and the AT&T prepaid website said, "Thank you for your submission, someone will contact you within 24 to 48 hours."

That was a week ago.

I tried calling AT&T (611 or 1-800-CALL-ATT) and "Tony" in Bangalore didn't know what I was talking about.  He gave me the phone number for the FCC ACP program, which was nice as I could confirm my acceptance to the program.  I called AT&T again and they said they had no idea what I was talking about and suggested visiting the local AT&T store.

So I did.  People actually go to these places?  They try to power-sell you a phone "plan" the same way mattress stores sell overpriced mattresses.  The AT&T store had huge posters proclaiming "FREE PHONES!" but no prices.  The Verizon place (next door) has prices starting at $70 a month, which is $15 more a month that I am paying now.  No bargains here.  Such stores are for the sort of people who buy cell phone insurance.  Geez.

You don't have to be poor to save on communication costs - there are many "pay as you go" plans that not only are cheaper than "contract" plans, but have no hidden fees, taxes, access charges or whatever.  Every "contract" plan advertises low, low prices, but when you get the actual phone bill, the actual amount is always higher because of these "hidden fees".   Prepaid plans, on the other hand are what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

Well, as you might expect, the lady at the AT&T store had no idea what I was talking about and told me the messages I got on my phone were "scams" and I should ignore them.  I asked her whether they handled AT&T prepaid plans and she demurred and admitted that the "store" was not a real AT&T company store (it had all the logos and signs, though!) but just a franchise that sold phones and plans - sort of like those kiosks in the mall or the wholesale club with earnest young men trying to buttonhole you into signing up for a contract.

This sort of thing is one level above an MLM scheme. I feel sorry for these young kids who are dragooned into selling like this - might as well be selling vacuum cleaners!  Most of their pay is commission, which is why they quickly ignore you if you start asking pointed questions about monthly price instead of salivating about a "free" iPhone XXXIV.

What was interesting about the stores is that they use psychology to make it seem like you are lucky to get a phone and be "approved" for a plan - much as car dealers act like they are doing you a favor by selling you a car.  "Congratulations! You've been approved to give us your money!"  People are dumb enough to go along with this.

Of course, at this point, I was getting frustrated, but tried to keep my cool.

I called the ACP number again and told them of my experience.  They were appalled.  But they gave me a phone number for AT&T ACP service (866-986-0963).  I have been on hold for nearly over a half-hour so far.  I think it will never answer.  (Update, I pulled the plug at 1:17 and no, it never answered). I went down the list of other ACP service providers and many of them, on their websites, talk about the new ACP program but say, "try again next week" for more information.  The program is still too new for them to figure out.

Two providers, Access and Assurance wireless, cleverly combine the Lifeline (Obamaphone) service with the ACP service to provide an unlimited data and 10GB hotspot service with a free phone and no monthly fee.   Obamaphone comes with no data and no hotspot, so if the two services are combined, well, that's pretty nice.  Problem is, I qualify for ACP but not the Lifeline.  So an interesting option, but not for me.

Out of curiosity, I tried to "see if I qualify" for this combined service and the form refused to load.  I am beginning to suspect that this new ACP program is still in the Beta-testing stage and the call centers and websites are overwhelmed with applicants and not enough support people.

I suspect in the coming months, these providers will get things straightened out and once everyone who is eligible signs up, the call volume will die down.  And once you are signed up, well, it is sort of on autopilot.

It never hurts to look into these things.  Recurring monthly subscription fees are what drives most Americans to middle-class poverty.  Cable TV, Internet, cell phones, car leases, online subscriptions, an and now, streaming subscriptions, add up to hundreds if not thousands a month, slowly bleeding the consumer dry.  I was chagrined the other day to see an "app" or service online that promised to find "ghost" subscriptions that you are paying for but forgot all about.  I mean, what the actual fuck.  A subscription to manage your subscriptions?  People sign up for subscriptions and forget about them and don't bother reading their credit card bill (or checking the balance and charges on a daily basis?).  That's the sort of shit that keeps AOL in business. And yes, here on retirement island, we have a number of friends with AOL e-mail accounts.

It's true what they say, you watch the pennies and the dollars take care of themselves.  Well, you have to watch the dollars, too.