The Horror, the Horror: Our Phone Plan in America

The year is 2014. The date is June 11th.


Seven years ago on June 29, 2007, the first iPhone was presented to the world. Since then the technology has rocketed into the future. Where there were no apps on June 28, today there are 3.1 million. In every way—memory, digital camera, Siri voice recognition, GPS maps—the iPhone of today is barely recognizable from that first version.


I remember our friends Nicky and Peter showing up at our house in July of 2007 with these newfangled phones. They were impressive—sort of. Peter moved around the house to get better phone and Internet reception, eventually going outside to stand on the porch. It worked if he stood on one plank of the porch just to the right of the front door, but one plank to the left and the connection would often cut off. I remember that plank. It was loose, in need of a nail, in need of a manly man to hammer in a nail.


That was the infancy of the iPhone—before an iPad was an idea, before Steve Jobs would die.


Now imagine, just imagine Peter standing on the same porch in the future—a porch with all planks nailed in firm. Put him there on that porch on June 11, 2014, with the latest iPhone in his palm, and imagine the power, the clarity, the speed of this new device. Maybe imagine its price dropping to a fraction of the 2007 cost, just because that’s what the march of time gives us.


One more point: In 2007 the iPhone customer had no choice but ATT. Steve Jobs had negotiated an exclusive contract to have his phone carried on the waves of ATT. Again, jump ahead 7 years and imagine the wider choices today for the iPhone user, and imagine the leaps that ATT has taken to wire up all of America, including rural areas like mine.




The year is 2014. The date is June 11th.


I have just returned from a tour of the world, a tour that has made me an expert on what other countries are doing with phones and data. Today, back in America and back in my kitchen, picture me making a first phone call and typing in my first web address to go on-line. I’m excited. Now that I’m all signed up with a phone company here in Sonora I’m ready to be amazed at this Brand New World of blistering speed and blinding clarity.




First, some background about what the world gave me these 11 months with phone and data service.


Here’s how it all begins. I’m generalizing, but in virtually every country we visited this is how you get hooked up with your phone:

  1. Right there in the airport or train station is a business that sells SIM cards and gets you all set up. In case you don’t know, the SIM card is inserted into the side of your phone that pops out with a poke from a paper clip. All you do is take the one tiny card out and then place the new one in… and voila, you’re ready to go.
  2. This process takes about 30 seconds.
  3. You are not committing a crime. The word “jailbreak” has worked its way into the American nomenclature but believe me, you are not committing a crime.
  4. The process costs nothing, since they’ll be making money off your data plan. In some places the SIM card is free; in others, it’s a few dollars, up to a high of $5. Keep this in mind: The setup charges in all 18 countries never exceeded $5.
  5. There is no contract, and certainly no 2-year plan that locks up Americans with one company.
  6. You decide on a phone, data, and text plan. These vary from country to country, so I’ll generalize: I usually bought a plan with some minutes for phone calls, with no texting, and with a lot of data—like 2-5 gigabytes.
  7. The cost ranged from $10 to $40 and usually lasted a month.
  8. When I used up all 2-5 gigabytes of data, I bought more—either on-line or in a store with a phone sign outside. Such stores are everywhere, as ubiquitous as ATM machines. This extra data averaged around $5 a gig.
  9. To summarize the costs, I don’t think I ever paid more that $45 or $50 a month in any country. Usually it was less, around $25-$30, so let’s say that my average cost on the road for a SIM card, for all set up charges, for ample data and phone service—for all of that, $40/month was the average.


Got all that? For $40 and about ten minutes of your time, you can have your iPhone all set up in just about all 18 of the countries we visited (except in India, of course).


The first time I did this in Stockholm I felt like a fool. I didn’t know about the SIM card slot—what it was or where it was and certainly not how to open it. I really did feel like I was breaking the law and that ATT would handcuff me and toss me into a dark cell. I thought the ATT card was soldered, riveted, embedded into the phone permanently. When it popped right out I thought of the Far Side cartoon, where a bear in the center of a circus ring snaps off the muzzle and harness around its mouth and tells a fellow bear, “Hey, these things snap right off!”


When I needed more data in Stockholm I went into a 7/11 (a corner market that you still see on rare occasion in America) and bought more. Topping off, they call it. I topped off in Greece and Italy and Sri Lanka and Indonesia and Australia, and a dozen other places. Never a problem. That’s how it works. You use your phone until you need more minutes and data, and then you buy just what you need. No long-term contract, no penalties for overuse, no buying more than you need.


And now we move on to performance. Equipped with a fancy new SIM card in the side of my fancy not-so-new iPhone 4S (which I used as a hotspot for my laptop), what kind of service did I get?


In a word, phenomenal. Maybe cut back 20% on that “phenomenal” because I’m Irish and thus genetically coded to embellish—but you get the idea. It’s really good out there.


In Nepal, for example, in this remote country where water buffaloes till the earth and where children climb 1600 stone steps in the side of a mountain to attend school every morning, the 3 of us cuddled close at night to stay warm beneath peaks that rose to 25,000 feet, and we FaceTimed Grandma Peggy in Jamestown, California. There she was, right there on our screen in all her pixelated glory. Outrageous, right?


That’s the case just about everywhere: plenty of cell service that’s strong, reliable, and fast. Not everywhere, but just about everywhere.


I didn’t have to find the right plank to stand on in Cambodia to get ESPN to see if my baseball team in Cleveland lost yet again. My connection never cut out there and it never cut out in Istanbul or Jaipur or Bangkok.


The world has it down, darlings. The world is wired. Speed and clarity, ease and cheapness—that’s what you get in the 18 countries I visited around the globe.





Fast forward to America. Fast forward to me with a choice: Either my family and I live a reclusive life in a cave far off the grid, surviving on grubs and our own urine, or we settle back into society and get cell service.


Grubs maybe, urine no—so off a cell-shopping we go.




We have three choices where we live in Columbia, California (four, if you count getting a $600 satellite dish with spotty service, so that doesn’t count). The choices are…

  1. ATT, which this blog has identified as the Scourge of the Planet Earth, up there with the AIDS virus and spam and the state of Texas and all things Fox.
  2. Verizon, which bought out our one and only independent provider up here in Sonora. I hear they’re good, though a reliable friend has called them Scourge #2 on the Planet Earth.
  3. T-Mobile. I’m banking on T-Mobile. These are the iconoclasts, the rebels who’ve thumbed their noses in the faces of ATT and Verizon. Please, please be a cool company. Please have your headquarters in Vermont, and pay your workers well, and charge me a normal fee for pretty good service. Please don’t have me hop from plank to plank in search of a connection. Is that asking a lot? Don’t gouge me, don’t tack on ridiculous charges, don’t bind me to a contract, give me okay service that lets me stay indoors out of the rain and snow. I’m not even asking Nepal quality.


I’m being very reasonable here, don’t you think.


Ok, place your bets. Which one became our choice: ATT, Verizon, or T-Mobile?




Before I give the answer, here’s a comment from our friend Shannon in Sweden about our search:

“I’m hoping that you found some ninja telephone/internet access secret on your travels. My hope is that AT&T suffers a humiliating death at the hands of a kind hippie-chick organization that is able to provide cheap internet to the Motherlode (and the world, of course).”




On day 2 of our return to America I drove an hour into the larger city of Modesto. First stop, T-Mobile.


“Ooooh, I wish we could help you, I really do.” Her nametag read “Felicia” and she was chewing bubble gum—really. “But up there in Columbia we only have phone service.”


“No data? No Internet?”


She popped a bubble. “Nope,” she said, and swiveled the monitor of her computer around for me to see a map of Columbia. “Take a look.”


It was all white, meaning that Columbia, California—a town with a college and a historic gold-mining park—is an Antarctica to T-Mobile.


“Are you sure?” I asked. Or rather, I pleaded.


“We get people like you from Columbia all the time.” Pop. “I don’t know why we don’t run lines or towers up there, I really don’t.”


“It’s the year 2014.”


Her eyes got wide. “Wow, it is!”




No T-Mobile. No cute girl in pink in the advertisements. Above all, no sticking our thumbs into the eyeballs of the twin Demons of the Planet, ATT and Verizon.




I drove to the office of the lesser demon, Verizon. It was in a strip mall, next to a laundromat which at 10:30am was empty. A few doors down was a place for a massage. Its door was open, and a Chinese man with a toothpick was leaning against the doorway. In front was a sign, “Grand Opening, Nice Massage, $19.95 Start.”


I stepped into the Verizon store.


A young man with a shaved head looked up from the counter. “How can I help you, sir,” he said in a Mexican accent.


I told him what I wanted.


He smiled. “We’ll get you hooked up in no time.” He stepped away from the counter and walked toward an empty wall with a lock. He inserted a key and the wall opened, revealing a bank of phones. “Have to keep the merchandise secure, bunch of low lifes come in here and play with the phones we have on display and just rip off the cords and run out the door. How am I supposed to run a business, can you tell me that? Me, I want to come up to where you live, get away from these gangs and low lifes but my wife she won’t have that no way, says she’s got to stay near her family, which is a bullshit reason if you ask me.”


I nodded.


He reached into the cabinet and removed a Samsung phone from its plastic sheathe. “This is what you’re looking for, a $600 phone free with a 2-year contract.”


“Oh no,” I said, “I guess I wasn’t clear before. I already have a good phone”—I showed him my worn iPhone with its protective case peeled away in strips—“so all I need is a SIM card. That’s all, same phone but new card, new plan. You do have service up in Columbia, right?”


“Oh yeah it’s a strong signal but hey, buddy”—buddy? that’s a quick demotion from the “sir” he called me a second ago—“it don’t work like that. IPhone makes one phone for ATT and the other for Verizon and they don’t mix none. If you want Verizon, and you really do want Verizon, you got to get a new phone.”


“I’m here for my wife too.”


“That’s two new phones.”


“But this phone is still really good, isn’t even two years old.”


“It don’t work like that, pal.” Pal? Is “asshole” just around the corner.


“You mean the only way I can get Verizon service,” I said, “is to buy two new phones at $1200 and toss these iPhones out?”


“Don’t have to toss nothing out, you can get 50 bucks for them on Craigs List. I’m not telling you to toss nothing out, I’m just telling you how it works.”




He’s telling me how it works… in America.


Nowhere else does a phone company have proprietary rights over my phone or anyone’s phone. The SIM card in Laos is universal. IPhone, Samsung, Nokia, a string between two soup cans—it doesn’t matter, the SIM card can be cut to size to fit any phone.




And so it happened that I left the Verizon store, passed the Chinese masseuse still gnawing on his toothpick, passed the laundromat with a pregnant woman looking defeated at her two howling kids—and off I drove up the mountain from Modesto, back to our town of Sonora and into the local ATT store.




Because… ok, I’m not going to swear, this is a family blog, all sorts of children are learning how to read through this site…


Because… because this is America, and when it comes to cell service, we are screwed one way or another.


Yes, that’s right. I bought a plan off of ATT. Four months ago I looked deeply into the eyes of my son and my wife, and I said, “Promise me, promise me that I’ll never ever EVER deal with ATT again.”


My data plan: Keep these same two phones that we now have, insert a new SIM card in each, pay month to month. Cost to set up the phones—that is, cost of the 48 seconds to pop out one card and replace it with another, times two, which I could literally do with my eyes closed—is $72. Got that? $72, or $72 more than any other company with a conscience charges for set up around the world. Add another $10 for taxes and other mystery charges—which no other country adds on above the quoted price when you sign up.


ATT’s cost of data plan for two phones: $130, per month, and $15 for every additional gig over. Thank you, ATT. Have I placed my balls in just right the position for your boot?


So do you have an idea of what’s going on here? To be clear on the cost, everywhere in the world: $25-$45, with no other hidden costs. For purposes of comparison, for two phones that would be $50-$90 a month for complete service. Let’s split the difference and make it $70 a month for two phones in any one of 18 countries around the world. (Plus, all other countries have plenty of companies vying for your cell business.) Now compare that to America, where only one company offers service up here in Columbia, California. One. That company is ATT, and that company charges $129.31 for June 3-June 6. I kid you not. I’m looking at the bill right now. They’ve taken the courtesy of letting me pay up to July 7, totaling $229.31.


That’s your comparison. $70 vs. $229.


Defeated. Utterly defeated. I slunked (slanked?) out of the office and drove home, resigned that this is the cost of living the modern life. Or rather, this is the cost of collusion between a phone company and a phone manufacturer to keep choices to such a minimum that anything can be charged. And this is the cost of living in America in 2014, a country with a Republican ideology in both parties that keeps government out of the business of regulating, that props up Big Business over we wee little citizens.


$70 vs. $229.



Well, at least the service will be pretty good—clear voices on the phone, fast loading on the Internet. It is the year 2014, after all. So I drove home and sat down at the kitchen table and typed in ESPN, an easy site to load. There at the kitchen table I waited, and I waited, and I waited—much as I waited back in the day when I used a modem and dial up. Ridiculous. I gave up waiting and needed to tell someone about this fiasco. I called my brother Joe in Cleveland.


“Joe,” I said when he picked up, “you won’t believe what—“




“Joey, it’s Jim, I got this new phone number now—“




“JOE,” I shouted, “IT’S JIMMY, I WANTED—“




I rose from the kitchen and stepped onto the porch.


“Hey, Joe, this any better?”


“Jimmy? You there?”






I sighed the sigh of the deeply distressed, pinched the bridge of my nose and stepped over six planks on the porch—onto the wobbly plank that Peter stood on in 2007, still in need of a nail. “How’s this,” I said, “this any better?”


“Yeah yeah, that’s better, just a little crackle. Wow, you’re home, how exciting! How’s it feel to be back home? Jimmy? Hello, you there?”















  1. J. Schiavo

    Congrats on a successful trip and arriving home safely! Interesting comparison of phone contracts in other parts of the world. Freedom and choice are often illusions, aren’t they…?

  2. Shannon


    Can’t there be a Challenge Fund for American’s against the tyranny of the cell phone monopolies?

    It is SUCH – insert stream of family-blog inappropriate language.

    Have you written your congressman (yeah, don’t waste your time. That guy is useless)? Have you written Bill Gates?

    This cannot be happening to you? NOOOOOOO!


    I am so sorry for the loss of your soul Jim. Really sorry for that!

    • Jim Toner

      Jim Toner

      It’s horrible. It really is. At least with a month-to-month arrangement we can cut out at the first whiff of an alternative. In the meantime there I am on my porch this morning–on my porch because no other place in my house gets a signal–waiting, waiting for a simple page of the NYTimes to come up, slower than dialup. For that I’m paying about $200 (when you include the $72 start up fees that no other country has the crooked audacity to charge; plus taxes, which other countries fold into the cost you’re quoted rather than spring them on you at the end). Oh, and this is priceless. Yesterday in the ATT store the saleswoman tried to get me to fill out a petition for more cell towers up here. I asked what the opposition says about this, and she said, “Oh, you know, they love their trees and their views so much, it’s a joke, but you know these days you can dress cell towers to look like palm trees, so really we make the view even better.”

      Where are you!!!!! I need you next to me so I can swear.

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