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Choices in Wireless? That Depends.

My friends at the CTIA–otherwise known as the firm that represents the interests of the wireless operators in North America–have posted their 50 Wireless Quick Facts. These facts, at least on the face of them, sound impressive and even reasonable. Reasoning through a few of the facts along with the realities of how service is offered in the US and you get a somewhat different picture.

One of the things the CTIA likes to remind us regularly is how competitive our market is compared to the rest of the world. They tout the fact that among the 26 OECD countries, our market is the only one not classified as “highly concentrated.” It may be true that most of the country has a choice from at least 4 facilities-based providers–over 70% have access to 5 or more–but I don’t see how that paints an entirely accurate picture given the other facts.

Another thing the CTIA likes to bring up is how many choices we have as consumers. Choices in handsets (More than 630 different handsets and devices are manufactured by more than 32 companies for the U.S. market), Choices in operators (both facilities and non-facilities based), choices in rate plans (providers offer lots of rate plans and options, both pre and post paid).

The number of choices–when taken in aggregate–are overwhelming. No question. I can’t even keep track of all the choices there are so many. Unfortunately, when you start actually making choices in one area (say, a handset), that reduces the number of remaining choices substantially–to the point where it looks like you have no choice at all.

Let’s say I want an iPhone. Because the iPhone is only offered on AT&T, it may not be a feasible choice for you (e.g. because of coverage). It also locks you into a rateplan of at least $55 (before taxes and surcharges) and a two year contract. Even after you’re paid up, you can’t even unlock the handset and take it to T-Mobile.

Another example: let’s say I want Verizon because their network is the best. That means I can’t get the iPhone, though I could just as easily get a Droid X or similar device. It’s not an iPhone. This requires a rateplan of at least $70 before taxes and surcharges.

What if I want one of these high-end phones on any carrier and not have a dataplan? Not possible as I have to pay for a data plan of some sort (pricing varies depending on the phone), even if I have no intention of using the data plan. What if I want to use these high-end phones on prepaid? Sure, voice minutes are downright reasonable, but try and find reasonable prepaid data pricing that is tied to a mobile phone. And let’s not even talk about the fact it’s impossible to get any smartphone without a voice plan of some sort.

So yes, there are choices, but your choices can be summed up this way:

  1. The phone you want on the network you want and a rateplan you can live with
  2. The phone you want on the network you don’t and/or a too-expensive rateplan
  3. A phone you don’t want on the network and/or rateplan you do want

How many people can honestly say they have the phone they want on the network they want and a rateplan they can live with? I’d be willing to bet: not many, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong. And yes, I know that CTIA says “92% of cell phone users are very or somewhat satisfied with their cell phone service overall,” but I doubt they asked about the combination of phone, network, and rate plan.

Honestly, when the vast majority of customers can get the handset they want on the network they want with a rateplan they can live with, only then will I believe there are choices. Until then, all we’ve got are compromises.

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Parent, Writer, Podcaster, Coffee Achiever, VoIP/Telco Curious, C-List Information Security Celebrity, and Mobile Phone Connoisseur residing in Gig Harbor WA US. Sometimes NSFW, always a 49ers fan.