My Mom On Buying A Cell Phone In The States

John Brownlee here. I just want to tell you all that I love my Mom. A four foot eleven firecracker who followed her recent stroke up with a healthy regime of climbing up twenty foot ladders to chainsaw branches down from the roof, she’s a hell of a girl.

I’m fairly protective of the warhorse, so when she came to visit me in Ireland, we bought her a pay-as-you-go phone from Vodafone for emergencies. Because they don’t have anything similar in America, it works like this: you get a phone loaded with free minutes and can top it up with credit at any convenient store throughout Europe. You are only charged for incoming calls. Credit lasts for a year and you don’t need to sign any contracts.

Despite the fact that old Mrs. Brownlee (or as my father and I call her, “Strokey”) had previously expressed contempt for the American cell phone movement, she quickly discovered how handy they can actually be. So when she got back to the States, she decided she wanted to get a mobile phone. The way the European Pay-As-You go system worked seemed pretty ideal for her, so she wanted something similar.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy, and my mother has put together a really wonderful email detailing the confusion, obfuscation and incompetence that she dealt with when trying to buy a mobile phone in America. She has some really great insights on what it’s like to navigate the confusing plans and options as someone who might be on the more curmudgeonly side of the philosophy of technology. She has questions, she has observations, she has withering and snarky criticisms of the entire process.

Keep in mind as you read this that when my Mom was in Ireland, getting a phone was as easy as walking into a store and putting €80 on the table. Compare that to her American experience after the jump.

    My Mom’s Email

    I admit to being telephonically challenged*. I gave up my rotary phone only after it fell apart from old age. I’ve never learned about my “calling” features, I can’t do 3 way calls, call transfers, or automatic redial. Caller ID leaves me cold. I tried a cordless phone, and threw it out after 2 days. I do have an answering machine, but everyone complains that I never listen to it. Why should I? The only messages are computer generated, or hang-ups by the very people who complain that I never listen to messages. So I have never had any desire to have my very own mobile, cell, or wireless phone.

    However, I’ve had a few health problems recently, and the comfort factor of having ready access to a phone in an emergency has started to appeal. I’ve been thinking about it for the past 6 years, and seriously thinking for the past 18 months. The tip factor was a recent visit to my child in Ireland. I think that he’s trying to reverse the roles about 20 years too early, but decided that I’d pacify him, and agreed that if I was going to be wandering around Ireland and France on my own, “Fine I’ll get a phone so that you can keep tabs on me”. I walked into a Vodaphone store in County Mayo, and bought my first mobile.

    They gave me a pay as you go package. I got a little phone, I could make outgoing calls until my call credit ran out, and receive unlimited incoming calls for 365 days. I was able to add additional time by making a call and using a credit card to buy more outgoing time. The girl at the counter set up the account, explained everything, showed me how to make calls, and off I went. My major problem was trying to answer the phone before it switched over to the voicemail system. I was able to text message with a bit of practice, and only paid for outgoing text. When I got a text message it was very easy to respond to, all in all I was pretty amazed. Returning to the US, I decided that maybe now that I had actually used one, I might actually be able to figure out what all of the mall kiosk hawkers, and TV ads were talking about.

    Yesterday, I trotted off to the Mall to “buy” a USA cell phone. My son had told me the closest I would find to Vodaphone was either T-Mobile, or Virgin mobile. There were at least 2 kiosk for every vendor, and that didn’t count the sections at Best Buy, Walmart, and Targets. I took a brief glance at Cingular, but minute charges, daily access fees, unlimited calls to other cingular mobiles, I was confused before I even talked to someone. Verizon was even worse, although affiliated with Vodaphone, the plans, and charges were nothing like what I had experienced in Ireland, and having worked for multiple incarnations of this company for 30 years I was not about to additionally line their pockets when they were delining mine with raised retiree copays, and decreased benefits.

    My stop at the first T-Mobile kiosk was a bust. Not too sure what Jim wanted to be doing, but it wasn’t explaining his product. I had looked at and wanted to know about a special offer I had seen, and an explination of the pay as you go packages and what was covered. All he was able to say was that I could get 1000 minutes with some type of “gold” card but first I needed to spend an additional up front amount every 30 days before the “gold” kicked in, and he didn’t know anything about any starter packages. I left feeling dumb and dumber, but decided to give Best Buy a stab.

    Brad was a very nice sales person, and he was the first to ask me what I wanted the phone for. I told him about Vodaphone, and as I listed the features he nodded sagely. Until we got to the no charge for incoming calls and 365 day expiration on minutes, then he said don’t do that in this country. But he did suggest Virgin Mobile, and told me that it came closest to meeting my requirements, and the coverage for most of the state was pretty good. Then he started to explain cards, you bought a phone, you bought a card, then you put them together, of course there were access fees that ate into the card, and minute charges. The phone model that I liked was being discontinued because some one at MIT had been able to hack into it and drain minutes, that left the “kid’s meal” look alike or the model that did dishes and vacumned the floor. I had reached my limit, I hadn’t had a cell phone for 55 years I could do without one for another 55. I really wasn’t intending to use the blasted thing, just to have it.

    Back to the parking lot, and as I walked past T-Mobile kiosk #2, two of the 4 identically dressed young men called out a cheery hello. I must have hesitated because immediately I was asked if I wanted them to tell me about their plans. Why not? Surely they couldn’t confuse me anymore than I was already. I told Jorge about Vodaphone, we talked about pay as you go, he showed me their starter kit. No daily access charge, nationwide roaming, didn’t seem as if they cared which or what TN I dialed. Mobile, land, Cingular, Verizon, or Virgin, all the same, as far as they were concerned. Regional transmission coverage about the same as everyone else. Doesn’t look too great for Nevada and Utah, but Jorge said they used a different network if the T-Mobile wasn’t good, all without cost to me. Yes they had started packages, here is what one looked like, and it came with 150 minutes of call time, and they weren’t going to charge me a daily access fee. What I used was what I was charged for. So I signed up. I’ve still got some questions, but they were nice, polite, charming, they took care of everything, and smiled at me throughout. I left with a functional phone, that I could use immediately, and I didn’t feel all that dumb.


    • Does receiving a call or text message charge against my minutes? Seem to think that it does but I don’t see it explicitly stated anywhere.

    • Not sure about the “gold”, seems as if you need to spend $100 on top offs before you join the gold category, but I got confused about the buying/expiring schedule. My current minutes expire in 60 days, and I need to spend an additional $70 to reach “gold” status. It looks as if I need to buy $100 block, and then I will
    have all existing and new minutes extend to 365 days. Whether that puts me at gold status or if I should even care still confuses me.

    • The menus are a royal pain. I keep ending up either where I started without doing anything, or somewhere I don’t want to be and not able to get back. I’m too old to remember what is where, and my fingers aren’t flexible enough for all this paging to and fro.

    • Which “features” I get charged minutes for , and which I don’t, seems a bit nebulous. Funbox, WAP, etc. Could use a spreadsheet that has a feature and a Charge/No Charge block. Actually it would be very helpful if they had something like that for the plan as well as the features. Outgoing = Charge, Incoming = NC, Voice Mail = Charge for mail/Charge for pickup. Or whatever the thing was.

    • Most of the Wireless sales people (I’ve talked to) seem to be male. However their tendency to Baffle with BS, and/or Dazzle with Brilliance works against them.

    • All this nonsense where they are telling you about access charges and when/whoever minutes, seems designed to hide costs that shouldn’t be there to begin with. I hate seeing people who can’t be without a phone in their hand, but service should be universal. Okay rates may vary with time, usage, and even distance, but all networks interconnect, and a rate variance between networks doesn’t exist. Having free calling within a network is just a marketing ploy to get people on an individual network.

    • Similarly, if you have a number the access is there, so to charge you a daily or use access fee is paying for a service that isn’t,particularly if you are already paying either a monthly rate, or a high pay as you go minute plan

    • Young men who smile at middle age ladies, and are charming, clean cut, polite, and helpful can sell even to crabby old crones like me.

    * – Being telephonically challanged does not mean that I don’t understand telephones and networks. 30 years of working in telecommunications means that I hate telephones, I’ve spent most of my professional life on them, and I want to minimize time spent with them. However I also spent those 30 years, working on cutting edge network technology, evaluating and implementing network enhancements, and co-ordinating, purchasing, and manging IT/Network projects. I’ve worked with the FCC regulations, DPU rate commisions, and all of the other groups, vendors, research outfits and suppliers that the modern telecommunication providers interface with. I’m not a total dummy, but wireless service and the whys and hows of the pricing structure are completely beyond me.

Like I said, I love my Mom, and you probably do too now. Can anyone shed some light on any of her questions?

And remember, if your mom has a great consumer complaint, send it into us at!