If there is a common enemy that we can all agree on, it’s not Microsoft, the MPAA, or even the RIAA – it’s the phone company.
Every year or so I spend more time than I care to admit dissecting my phone bill and looking for ways to cut costs. Between the obscene charges for “home wiring insurance” and the ever fluctuating rate for “local long distance” I invariably end up spending an afternoon on the phone negotiating the terms of my service with a phone company sales representative. The one constant is that said sales representative is always baffled by the combination of services that appear on my monthly bill.
My current telephone configuration is the result of running a home office in the same location for nearly 12 years. While my setup might seem eccentric, it makes perfect sense in the context of all of the changes the telecom world has gone through in the past decade. For example, I currently have two land lines. I’m well aware that we’re living in an era when many consumers are ditching their land lines for mobile phones. I, however, have special needs.
My second land line made perfect sense in the context of a pre-broadband world. If you used the Internet in the early days you needed a second phone line. When DSL finally came along, I added the service to my “data line” because, at that point, I was still receiving a fair number of faxes.
At this point I don’t really need a data line – but I do need DSL. Until recently there was no way to buy DSL service without getting a phone line as part of the deal. Recently, however, AT&T has quietly begun offering unbundled DSL (aka “naked DSL”) in California — not because they want to, but because regulators forced them to as part of the recent SBC merger. So now I can get DSL without having to buy a second phone line. Except that AT&T has priced naked DSL at just $1 less than regular DSL bundled with a phone line.
AT&T spokesman John Britton said the standalone price accurately reflects the real cost of DSL, and highlights the value the company places in its bundled service.
“Bundled services continue to deliver the greatest value to consumers,” he said. “Most standalone services will have higher prices than bundled service.”
So much for naked DSL. But I haven’t given up on the concept of un-bundling services. In fact, I plan on doing a bit of my own un-bundling over the next couple of weeks.
My second land line is actually my main phone number. Canceling it is out of the question. Not only that, over the years my main voice line has accumulated a vast array of features that are all designed to make my life more tolerable – most of which involve sheltering me from unwanted phone calls (the Bulldog Foundation just won’t take no for an answer – and they refuse to believe I’m dead). These are the services the phone company usually suggests I drop when I complain about my rates. It turns out that most of these extras are standard features on just about every Voice Over IP (VOIP) service.
For $14.99 per month Vonage will give me the same service AT&T charges me $58 per month for — I guess that proves that “bundled services continue to provide the greatest value to consumers”. I just have to buy those bundled services from someone other than AT&T.
I’ve been considering converting my main line to VOIP for a couple of years now. It’s only recently that I’ve been had the option to do so while maintaining the same phone number. Which, as it turns out, is yet another hang-up in the process. While you can easily transfer your phone number between mobile providers in a matter of days, there are no standards for transferring your number to a non-mobile provider. I’ve been informed that it will be a minimum of 20 days before my number is released to Vonage. Because, you know, it’s important to hang on to your customers as long as possible and by any means necessary.
I’m aware that moving my service to Vonage is not without risks.
- I’ve read many reports of varying service quality. While some users report great quality, others find the service unusable. Fortunately I still have multiple phones to fall back on if Vonage fails.
- I’ve read reports of poor customer service. Although, my own experience with AT&T customer service hasn’t been so great either. I’m willing to take this risk.
- Vonage’s recent IPO has been problematic and it’s starting to look like it could cause the company some long term problems.
Regardless of the perceived risks, Vonage has no minimum service commitment. The worst case scenario is that my experiment fails and I end up moving my number to yet another provider. This is exactly the sort of reasoning that companies like AT&T fear most. Is it any wonder that telcos want to put an end to network neutrality?