Thursday, April 21, 2022

ACP Hotspot After a Month... So Far, So Good


The long national nightmare is over..... we hope.

The Hotspot has been working well.  Last month, we used about 37 GB of the 100GB allotted, so clearly we have more data than we will ever need.  The price delta between the 30GB hotspot (Reg $35 a month, $5 with ACP) and the 100GB hotspot (Reg $55 a month, $25 with ACP) is $20, so it pays to buy more.  On the other hand, they have an annual 20GB hotspot plan for $300 a year, so 100GB seems to be the sweetspot in terms of data per dollar.  With the discount, however, the 30GB plan is slightly cheaper (at 16 cents per GB as opposed to 25 cents).  But then again, you are limited in terms of data.  The annual plan is not available (AFAIK) with the ACP program.

But there are other savings.  Our phones were on a $55 a month plan (with autopay, regularly $65 a month) which gave us 10GB each of hotspot and unlimited data.  For some odd reason, AT&T prepaid now has another plan for $75 a month with.... the same terms it seems.  AT&T prepaid is always changing their plans, so it pays to log on occasionally and see if another plan works for you.

However, by going to a $40 a month plan ($41.50 with taxes) with "only" 15GB of data, we cut our phone bills by approximately $30 a month, combined - going from $55 a month to $40 a month on each phone.  Since we have a ton of unused hotspot data from the new mobile hotspot, we can turn the WiFi on our phones "on" and use that data instead.  Upshot?   We end up paying $5 less a month overall, and getting a ton more data to use - for streaming movies (Netflix, YouTube), using the computer, the tablet, and the phones.  And since the hotspot is "on" all the time, it is no hassle to use it - everyone is automatically signed in, all the time, just like with a router.

We could save another $20 a month going to their $30 a month phone plan which provides only 5GB of data.  This seems a little thin, but I am going to investigate our usage next month and see how it works out.  If we always have the hotspot with us, well, we don't really need to pay extra for more data on the phone.

All of this did not happen without some pain, however.  I noted before the long hold times on the phone with AT&T and the mixups that happened, mostly because this is a new program.  When I started the hotspot, I had to call several times - hold times of an hour or more - to get things straightened out.  They had to make a manual $30 adjustment to my first bill.  But once it was all set up, things would be fine, right?

You do remember this is AT&T we're talking about, right?

Well, a month later, I get a notice that the mobile hotspot plan will renew for... $55.  I log onto the site and it shows "ACP Affordable Connectivity Plan discount applied!" but it isn't.  And AT&T charges my card $55, too! (with autopay, which provides no additional $10 discount with this plan).

So I called two days ago to their call center in Puerto Rico and the nice man tells me to disable auto-pay and then let the account expire for two days and then pay the bill on the 20th and the discount will apply.  It seems AT&T's billing cycle was on the 18th and the ACP discount was cycled for the 20th.

Now, this is where it gets weird.  Our new phone plans, at $40 a month, had NO hotspot data, just 15GB of data to use on the phone.  In the past, when we tried to use the hotspot service on the new phones, it would bomb out and say we were not authorized to use hotspot (naughty boy!) which is why we "upgraded" to the $55 a month plan in the first place.  But now I try it and... it works.  We watch the last episode of Bridgerton on Netflix (more on that later) and try not to fall asleep, using Mark's phone as the hotspot.

So today is the 20th, I log in to pay the bill and re-activate the mobile hotspot and.... it says the amount due is $55.  WTF?  It is supposed to be $25! And as if to mock me, it says, "ACP discount activated!"

So I call again, this time to an AT&T ACP number that they provide on their website because I guess there are a lot of angry people calling.  I try to remain calm - the idiot on the other end of the line can't do much more than read what is on the screen in front of me (and proceeds to do so).  He tells me the problem is with ACP and I need to call another number.  But this is an AT&T billing problem, not an ACP problem.   I ask him point-blank if the number he is giving me is an AT&T number and NOT the FCC's ACP program number.  Oh, no, he says, this is where you have to call.

So I call the number knowing full-well what is going to happen.  It is the FCC number and when I press "2" for billing issues and device issues, the recording says that I should contact my service provider.  I mean, I knew that already.  AT&T needs to screen its call center people better.  Carlos was just trying to get me off the line (and I think I talked to him a month ago with the same result!).

So I call back (this month, the wait times are less than two minutes at least!) and get Maria, who puts me on hold (after, of course, reading to me all the data on the screen that I am looking at).  She comes back with another idea.  Don't use autopay.  There is a glitch in their billing software that charges the full amount if you use autopay.  She suggests paying the $25 manually (you can make non-autopay payments in any amount, it seems) so I try it.

It works.  The $30 discount is applied and the mobile hotspot reactivates.  Maria you are a genius!  Carlos, you can go to hell.

It is a bit of a hassle to pay manually - I have to click on the bookmarked link, it logs in (the userid and password are stored) and click "pay".  And since it renews about the same time as my phones, I get plenty of reminders by text message.  Of course the ultimate reminder is the hotspot shutting down if I don't pay.  But once I click "pay" it re-activates almost immediately.

So, problem solved, sort of.  Autopay would be nice, but saving $30 a month is even nicer.  Well, $5 a month over the cost of our phones before - maybe $25 next month.

Is it worth it?  Well, recurring expenses are a big hole in most people's budgets.  $25 a month is $300 a year, and over a decade, $3000.  If you don't take the time to plug these little holes in your rowboat, they end up costing you tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, over a lifetime.  Throw in compound interest and you'll really see what I mean.  Yes, it may seem like only $5 here or $10 there, but you can't look at it as saving only that, but the overall savings over time.  Is waiting on hold for an hour worth $300 - particularly when you are doing something else on the computer while you are waiting?   I don't think I ever made $300 an hour, lawyering.  Billed, maybe, not made.

It is distressing, but not unexpected, to see young people get upset because at age 25 they cannot afford the mini-mansion they grew up in (and neither could I!).   They argue that it is "unfair" that "boomers" chide them for buying avacado toast in a restaurant and paying $5 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks - as if these trivial expenses were what was keeping them back.

I used to think that, too.  My "minor" drug and alcohol expenditures weren't the reason I was bouncing checks - it had to be something else and preferably someone else's fault, right?  But with the perspective of time, I realize that when I was young I wanted a lot of stupid things now and was willing to pay for them later - with credit. What's worse, I spent way too much money on convenience foods and convenience items.

For example, when I was working at the hydraulics place, making $4.25 a hour, I would go to lunch with a friend and get one of those giant sub sandwiches at this great Italian deli and wash it down with a beer or two (and a bag of chips) and smoke a little pot.  I didn't realize that I was spending two hours of take-home pay just on lunch.  I could have brought a brown bag lunch from home for less than a dollar.

But when you are young, you don't think that way - that the costs of commuting to work could exceed an hour's labor.  That with taxes and "lunch" it may be 2 o'clock in the afternoon before you are actually making any take-home money.

If you want to accumulate wealth, you have to spend less than you earn.  So you have to fight like hell to find the best bargains - or learn to do without.  A regular fiber optic internet service (which is not available in my area anyway) is $129 to $169 a month.  Add in $75 a month per phone for AT&T cell service, and we're talking $300 a month - or more.  And those prices don't include "taxes and fees" which is why the actual bill always ends up so much higher.

Now granted, this is for top-tier high-speed access, which is nice if you have a 25-year-old bounce-back incel living in your basement, playing Grand Theft Auto all day long and you don't want him stabbing you with his katana when you serve him cold tendies.  But the rest of us have a life and don't really need 300 MPS data (which always has a * next to it anyway - "some restrictions apply").  So, for about $100 a month (maybe less, next month, when we switch to the $30 plan) we have what we need.

.I hear from people who spend hundreds of dollars a month on cell phones, cable television, and internet service.  And I'm glad they do.  You see, one of those naughty little add-ons to your phone bill, the "universal access fee" pays for my ACP discount.  So thank you for having the latest and greatest iPhone, which is "free" with your three-year contract.  We do appreciate it.

Of course, we could save $25 more by not having a hotspot at all.  But then again, there is such a thing as too stingy.  Whether we like it or not, internet access, just like phone access, has become an integral part of our lives - you cannot get a job, call for help, or so much of anything else, without it.

Which is why the government created the "lifeline" (so-called "Obamaphone" under Reagan) and ACP services - to make sure connectivity is available for everyone.

POSTSCRIPT: How the poor are supposed to navigate any of this is beyond me....