When Homer Simpson expresses his need for a cellphone, he's instantly greeted by a predatory salesperson leaping out of a closet. She thrusts a handset toward him, complete with campy ring tone, and Homer learns that he's ripe for the profit-lusting telecom company's picking. If you own a cellphone, you, too, know the inane details in the small print of cellphone contracts and the power of the telephone companies that dream them up.
The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way. North America lags far behind the rest of the world in quality and convenience of mobile phone service. Many European and Asian countries have more cells than people, and customers routinely switch plans and still keep their phones. Monthly billing is lower, text messaging is free, and pay-as-you-go plans are the norm.
In North America there is currently no standard for how calls are relayed. In Europe, an industry standard called the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) has been used since 1991 and now handles over 1 billion phones worldwide. This allows international roaming, much more common outside North America.
In the States and Canada, market penetration sits at a paltry 66 per cent. Cellphones are generally accessories to land lines, while in other parts of the world cellphones outnumber wired phones.
Detractors say the telecom companies in North America have far too much power over consumers and are choking the market with their efforts to maintain their share of the pie.
The U.S. has slowly been enacting legislation to change this situation, despite pressure from the telecoms. In November 2003, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that cellphone users could transfer their phone numbers across plans, even from land lines to cellphones.
But because companies purposely use different relaying standards, consumers still have to buy new phones when they change service providers. An antitrust suit awaiting trail in New York claims that the five biggest telecom providers illegally rope people into using specific handsets.
Another problem unique to North America is extortionate early termination fees, often running to $100 or more. In March 2005, the FCC outlawed "deceptive phone charges" or fees that resemble taxes, so these fees are slowly coming down in the U.S.
Problem is, Canada is way behind the U.S. when it comes to preventing cellphone companies from screwing their customers. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) currently doesn't police the cellphone market and has historically, even more than the FCC, been the object of intense lobbying by Bell Canada and the other telecom heavyweights.
It's strange that the U.S., a country usually averse to messing with the hidden hand of the free market, has decided before regulation-friendly Canada that it won't tolerate a situation in which corporate interests are beginning to outweigh consumer benefits.
If we want to communicate as freely as the rest of the world, we'd better start paying attention to what the cartoon character salespeople are really asking us to buy.