Voice Calling and SMS Fees Are a ScamS

Soon, every internet-connected device will make "phone calls"—Xbox, iPhone, laptop, whatever. Data is data, be it voice, text or video. Carriers should charge for data—more even—but leave off the dumb premiums for voice and SMS.

Every month my phone sends and receives a certain amount of megabytes to carry out everything I do. For all I know, it's a fairly predictable amount. I would be able to study it, only it's split into three incongruous measurements: minutes, messages and megabytes. Two of these no longer make sense, except to the carriers who want profiteer on their mystery. I want more transparency.

Follow me here: Back about 15 years ago, it suddenly became weird to have a computer that didn't have internet access, right? By 2000, everyone's grandma was on AOL. Ten years later, it's starting to be increasingly weird when a handheld digital device doesn't have some kind of wireless data connection. Wi-Fi handles most of our needs—even when we're out and about—but more and more hot gadgets are going cellular.

The flipside is that voice is less and less of a priority. We joke now about how little we use voicemail, that is, how little we rely on the human voice to get messages to friends, reserving it mostly for (older) members of the family. Our phones are increasingly communicators and computers, as Chen observed, yet we still buy a "phone" with a voice plan, and then tack on data service.

Whenever reporters would bring up data issues or handset shortcomings with carriers, they all used to say the same thing: "Delivering voice calls is our No. 1 priority." The iPhone—you know, the topselling AT&T handset whose owners joke is good for "everything but making calls"—proves that this is no longer true.

So, if more and more devices are connected to the world through cellular data plans, and even the "phones" in our hands are used more for sending messages—and locating restaurants and flirting and catching up on news—why does 60% of our phone bill still go to these so-called voice plans?

You're not actually paying for the minutes themselves. If you did, the difference between 450 minutes and infinite minutes would be greater than $30.

I pay $200 a month for two phones on AT&T, and I discovered the other day that I had 11,000 rollover minutes. Now that the new pricing plans are out, I can dial down my minutes to offset this, bringing it down to around $180 including all the services and taxes.

If I were to dial down my minutes to offset this, I could bring my bill down to $180. Look over your carrier's plan and you will see that the "cheapest" voice plan is already quite high, possibly higher than the amount you pay for your data services—up to $40 in most cases. I argue that $40 is a surcharge for using the phone, not a fee for making voice calls.

I am not saying that the money I pay for service is a waste. I am saying that carriers need to be more honest about why they charge me what they do. Voice is not the No. 1 priority anymore, certainly not for carriers with their eyes on the horizon. We will all need their higher-speed 3G and 4G services, to juice up all our crazy gear. Whether we transmit our voices through those devices seems increasingly arbitrary.

It should and will be our choice to do it, once VOIP technologies merge with services such as Google Voice. Android is surely to gain this advantage first, maybe it's already in the plans for Nexus Two. If Google goes, Apple will have to follow, and Microsoft will too.

Maybe you'd say that voice service is special, that it's not just packets blowing to and fro on the internet, but calls that make use of the telco infrastructure. Well, my only answer is that if it's so precious, why do cable companies give it away for free? Ever notice it's actually cheaper to get broadband with phone service than to go without? And why shouldn't it be? You're paying plenty for huge amounts of bandwidth, for an increasingly legitimate array of fun stuff. Who's even going to notice a few voice packets floating back and forth?

If there's a bigger scam than the voice service surcharge, it's text messaging. That's gotta be a cash cow, since the 160-character strings flying back and forth can't possibly be a burden on a system increasingly built for delivering stutter-free video. Hell, this is decade-old pager tech. Each message is 1/10th of a kilobyte, according to some educated guesstimations. So that $5 plan that gives you 200 messages? That's the equivalent of paying $250 a megabyte.

But it's not money. It's that we're constantly sending Twitter and Facebook messages, using the same network but without paying the penalty money. With Boxcar using push alerts on an iPhone, I can get an experience that's richer than typical SMS, and doesn't require anything more than the basic, mandatory data plan.

Sprint deserves props for having the guts to admit voice isn't king, and sell a reasonably priced "everything" plan. They have always been open to testing out new, more fair pricing strategies. But as the underdog—scrambling along with T-Mobile for the last people who haven't been sucked in by the AT&T and Verizon megaliths—they have to try something. Meanwhile, though Verizon and AT&T have both admitted there's a limit to how much you can charge for talk, text messages are still over priced, and the ratio of specialized talk and SMS service to raw data is still cartoonishly lopsided.

I know carriers fear becoming anonymous conduits for other people's cool content and services, but it's happening already, and in exchange for that, we're willing to enrich our beloved providers in other ways. We are already putting more devices on wireless networks—the iPad is at the break of a tidal wave of secondary machines that'll all need cell service. And we're already getting used to the fact that "unlimited" data plans will soon give way to some kind of tiered pricing.

In return, we ask for more transparency. Charge me $100 a month each for my "phones," but at least have the decency to tell me what I'm really paying for.