Low End Theory: The Customer is Always Cheap


By Brendan I. Koerner

Every morning as I approach my workspace on 14th Street, I'm assaulted by two very different sensory experiences. The first is the whiff of stale urine outside a certain construction site, where nightly Mad Dog throwdowns seem to occur. The second is the hollering of a tout who spends eight straight hours piping, "Free Sprint phones! Free T-Mobile phones!" She's out there rain or shine, handing out flyers for a nearby cellphone depot. So piercing is her scream that I've started hearing it in my dreams.

But don't get me wrong, I admire the lady bigtime—not just for her Teutonic work ethic, but for advancing the cause, however slightly, of handset enticements. You see, wireless providers seem to think there's only two ways of getting your business: coverage (hence those now-stale "Can you hear me now?" Verizon ads) and plans (hence that really annoying T-Mobile ad with the two long-haired stoners, their dads, and a loudspeaker that blares "Overage! Overage!"). But neither of these is really the way to a cheapskate's heart—and, by extension, his wallet. We're the sorts who prefer a dollar today to a buck fifty two years down the line, and so what we look for is this, and this alone: what sort of free cell do I get for signing up? After the jump, a rundown of what America's wireless providers are giving away at present, as a means to deciding which company really, truly loves us low-enders.

Verizon Wireless The fact that Verizon thinks they can hook you with coverage promises really shows in their lineup of freebies. The chunky CDM-180, manufactured by Audiovox, is the most expensive handset they're willing to part with; it's marked down from $69.99 if you'll do a two-year contract. It's a relatively ancient product, actually, having been launched at the 2005 CES—a fact that Verizon conveniently fails to mention on its hype sheet. It's also strange that they flog the CDM-180's wide screen as perfect for "playing games and browsing the web." Um, Verizon? If I'm signing up for the cheapest possible phone, that probably means I'm not likely to fork over for a data plan, too. Better bet: the PN-210, from our "friends" at Pantech. It's drab and featureless, for sure, but at least it's lightweight.

Cingular "Raising the bar"? Boy, do ad slogans ever lie. The sole free flip phone in Cingular's lineup (again requiring a two-year contract—the rule of thumb from here on in) is the LG C2000. I can tell you from experience that this year-old phone has a ghastly camera, as well as middling talk time. If you must have Bluetooth, then you can opt for the Motorola L2, which lacks a lid. Strangely, I've also read that the L2 was priced in the $175 range when it debuted last August. I wonder if its quick descent into low-end land tells you something about it's quality.

Sprint Lord knows I'm no fan of Sprint, which I ditched many moons ago after growing weary of asking myself, "How the hell can I be roaming in my kitchen?" I'm definitely not the only person who's down on the house the Cleyson Leroy Brown built; I heard the emcee at the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night make a similar joke a few months back, and the audience went absolutely buck nuts in agreement. So how do you repair your image? Why, by offering a pretty decent assortment of freebies. The nicest stuff here is by Samsung, particularly the A640. What's incredible about the A640 deal is that it's such a new handset, having only been released this past July. The fact that they're handing this out to new recruits isn't exactly a sign that you should start buying Sprint stock, but a company's misery is often a miser's gain, eh?

T-Mobile The way I feel about T-Mobile is the same way I feel about TBS and TNT—solid, but not apt to wow (though I do enjoy those Family Guy reruns on TBS, I'll admit). T-Mobile's lineup of entry-level handsets is about what you'd expect from such a company, with the best attraction being the year-old Motorola V360. It's a serviceable phone, I guess, and I definitely appreciate them not saddling with you a 65,000-color screen like some tightfisted providers. But my ultimate reaction is along the lines of "meh". (On the other hand, note that the ad on the Mobiledia review promos a deal that'll net you a profit of $50 in exchange for your two-year agreement—how come the wireless providers themselves never advertise such deals on their sites?)

Low End Theory: The Customer is Always Cheap

Alltel I have no idea what to think about this Johnny-come-lately, at least judging by their handset deals. No true freebies here, but they do have two so-so models available for nominal fees: the Kyocera Candid KX16 for 99 cents, and the LG AX4270 at two-for-a-dollar. The LG offer seems especially tasty at first glance, though the handset's spec sheet is decrepit—a listed talk time of 168 minutes probably means you'll get an eighth of that within a few months, if you're lucky. But what I'm really conflicted about is whether the nominal-fee scheme is ingenious marketing, or some sort of total dick move. I'm actually looking into writing an upcoming column on the psychology of various promotional tactics, so stay tuned.

The Bottom Line I never thought I'd say this, but...Sprint wins! Sprint wins! They're definitely layin' it all on the line, in terms of putting passable cellphones in the hands of new cheapskate subscribers. But, as noted above, the abysmal service the company offers should soon end the honeymoon. Which makes me wonder—is there some sort of axiom we can take away from this? Does the appeal of a wireless providers' entry-level handsets increase in direct proportion to how awful their service is? If that turns out to be the case, let's totally call it the Low End Theory Rule #2; Low End Theory Rule #1, of course, is never buy a $100 Powerbook from an eBay seller who lists his e-mail address as hdrhghgfhgh@yahoo.com.cn.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

Read more Low End Theory