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Hey! FCC! About Those Cell Phones

October 3, 2010

The time has come for the FCC to do for cell phone customers the same thing it did for wired phone customers many years ago.  Define a standard and then make everyone operate by the same rules and play together nice.  Imagine if your phone worked no matter where or from what company you bought it. And it worked on any network owned by any company anywhere in the country!  Standardization is the key to competition, excellent nationwide service, inexpensive featured filled phones and smart phones, and happy customers.

Standardization.  It’s been the standard for nearly every industry.  Phonograph records come to mind.  When they were first getting started the speed at which records were played depended on who made them!  Early records covered a speed range from about 60 to 130 RPM!  Naturally the record company that made records at a certain speed wanted you to buy the phonograph that would play at that speed. Wasn’t long before companies started making phonographs with variable speed knobs to get your machine to play any speed, but it was a huge pain in the butt to get the speed set right.  This was in the days of wind up phonographs.  You had to literally count the revolutions to get the speed right.  Then eventually there were standards set of 16, 33, 45 and 78.  Then there were other issues with sound equalization, which I won’t explain here — but the way the sound was recorded could vary greatly — finally the RIAA was created to set standards for this, too.  Soon, everyone could buy any record, any record player, and they would all be compatible!  Oh geeze! Then stereo records came along and another standard had to be determined. Same with audio CD’s today — there’s a set of standards in place to make sure they all work the same in all machines.

Electrical standards, plumbing standards, railroad track width standards, the list is nearly endless.  At first every company did their own thing until either an arm of the government or a 3rd party organization stepped in and set a standard.  Broadcast radio needed a set of standards for AM.  Then for FM. Then FM stereo. Now digital radio.  Imagine had the FCC never developed a standard set of parameters for FM stereo radio.  You Ford might pick up one group of stations, but your Chevy – choosing it’s own standard – would pick up different stations!  It would be chaos!

Same thing happened with telephones in their early days.  You couldn’t buy a phone and just plug it in.  It had to come from the phone company.  They insisted that a third party phone would wreck the system and to keep it working and secure you could only use phone company phones, which you rented from them!  Small phone companies in rural areas wouldn’t interface with the large systems. The phone company did all it could to fight to keep it all within their own system.  But finally the FCC and other government agencies broke up the monopolies, and made everyone play together.  Now you can choose from all sorts of local and long distance carriers.  You can buy a phone at Wal-Mart and plug it in and it works.  You can plug in your modem, your fax machine, your answering machine, all purchased from the store and manufacturer you prefer.  It was real close to all these items being available ONLY from Ma Bell!

Now we’re in the same boat with cell phones. You buy an ATT phone, it only works on their system.  You buy a Verizon phone, it only works on their system.  Oh, sure there are a few independent phone companies that use someone elses system, after all there aren’t really 10 different cell systems and sets of towers in the country.  But basically what you buy is where it will work.  When we visit my in-laws in Montana my wife and daughters phones work, mine doesn’t.  I have ATT.  They have Verizon and Sprint.  Obviously there is a signal there, it just doesn’t jive with my phone’s system.  Conversely there are spots 20 miles from home where my ATT phone works, but the Verizon phone doesn’t.   Imagine a world where a standard was developed, where all phones had to be built to either work on all systems, or all phones and cell systems had to be built to the same standard!  Just like land line phones. Just like most everything else!  It may take a year or two to implement a system, and I’m sure the cell companies would fight to the death to prevent this from happening. But in the  long run it would benefit everyone.  Your phone and all it’s features would work no matter what company owned the tower you were connecting too. It would relieve consumer frustration.  It would add to the safety of everyone (doubling the chances your phone would work in a road emergency or other situation where you REALLY need it to work).  I would think the cell phone companies would do more business with happier customers who would more than likely spend more time on the phone, using up more minutes, sending more texts, and surfing the web. And while they’re at it they could upgrade their systems so they can handle the current and future load on their systems.

Just think about your regular home phone.  No matter what company you have for your phone service, you can call anyone you want no matter what phone company they may have at their house.  Not only that, no matter what home phone company you may have you can call ANY cell phone no matter what company the cell phone user has!  There is no reason for each cell phone company to have it’s own coverage area, and it’s own exclusive phones.  We all know the excuses the cell companies will give us why this must be so — and we all know it’s a bunch of horse poop.

While we’re at it something really has to be done about the monopoly on phones themselves that some carriers have. They maintain direct control over your phone.  Here’s what I mean.  I have ATT.  ATT phones have “SIM” cards.  Little tiny memory chips that are transferrable from phone to phone, that you can do yourself.  Last summer on the first day of a long vacation my cell phone died.  Complete and utter failure.  There was no bringing it back to life.   Since I have ATT, I realized I could stop at any Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, or any of thousands of other stores and pick up one of their $15 “Go-Phones”, pop in my SIM card, and it would work!  This is exactly what I did. Phone worked fine.  All my contacts were there as they should be, and I had communication throughout my vacation with no real inconvenience or expense.  When I got home of course I found out I couldn’t buy a replacement phone like the one I had for a good price (because to get that good price you have to start or extend a contract, blah blah blah) so I just went back to Target and bought a more expensive, off the rack Go-Phone, popped in my card again, and I’m good to go.  Eventually I’ll get something better, but for now it gave me the flexibility to stay in touch.

When my daughter wore out her fancy Sprint phone there were no options.  Pay $600 for a new one, or extend or renew your contract and get another phone for only $300.  It’s the same thing for my wife on Verizon.  If you stick with a company that uses the SIM card, you can switch phones as needed with no extra costs or contract negotiating. ALL phones need to have this ability.  If your phone becomes lost, damaged, or just plain conks out on you, you should be able to pick up a replacement and go on your way.  Just like you can buy a new phone for the house.  You should also be able to make copies of your SIM card and use the same account and number on any number of phones.  You can plug in as many phones as you like to your home system, why not your cell number?  Oh, I know it’s because they want to sell more phone lines, which of course uses up more numbers, and bogs down the systems.  Imagine having a cheap phone to take with you to the beach, and your iPhone or Blackberry when you’re off to work etc.  It only makes sense. If you had a spare copy of your SIM card (which in fact you own, and the data on the card belongs to the account you pay for and contains your personal information) if your phone were stolen or lost, you could just buy a replacement, pop in your spare SIM card and be on your way!

A phone standard common to all would allow more companies to design, build and sell cell phones.  Prices would drop.  ($600 or more for an “unsubsidized” cell phone?  We ALL know that’s a pile of hooey).  Not only would smart phones come down in price, but there would be competition to make better phones!

Imagine if no electrical standard had ever been devised. You would go to the store and have to determine if the electrical device you were about to purchase, be it a blender, radio, or electric drill, had the proper plug for the outlet in your house, determined by your power company or local building code.  Is it AC or DC (it actually used to make a difference in the early days of electric power in homes).  Standards were set, and we all play nice together.

I can only encourage you all to write to the FCC and try to convince them.  From a regulatory standpoint this would be easy.  All the technology exists, we just have to force the cell companies to comply.  Visit http://www.fcc.gov/contacts.html and write some email and letters today!

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