Dark ages of telecommunications

Matthew JC. Powell
30 January, 2008
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I received my phone bill this morning. The bill, that is, for my mobile phone, which I took with me to San Francisco for the Macworld Expo. The phone which was my lifeline to Melbourne while our February issue raced to print, the phone which kept me in touch with representatives from various companies I needed to see while in the City of the Golden Gate. The phone upon which I filed my live blog from the Expo Keynote by sending 78 SMS messages in just over 90 minutes to a colleague sitting by the computer in Melbourne who faithfully retyped them for you. You can imagine, I expected the bill to be high.

Well there’s high, and there’s high. Mount Kosciusko is high — if it weren’t it could hardly be called a mountain. Mount Everest, though — that’s high. Without going into the specific numbers of how much my mobile phone bill is, let me say I required oxygen by the time I reached the summit.

As I gradually regained the feeling in my extremities, it occurred to me that communication these days should not be nearly this expensive, and I can’t work out why it is.

Think about this: for as much of my calling as I could, I used SkypeOut while I was in San Francisco. That cost me exactly the same as it does when I’m over here — not terribly much at all. Because as far as Skype is concerned, the internet is the internet, and wherever I’m plugged in doesn’t matter.

It’s not the same for mobile phones. Mobile phones know where you are and, if you’re not where they reckon you ought to be, they make you pay.

Case in point: While overseas, I was paying for calls I received. I don’t normally pay for calls I received, but I can hardly expect the person calling me to wear the huge costs of an international call they may not realise they’re making, can I? So that’s fair enough. The most expensive of these lasted 18 minutes and 18 seconds, and cost $5.52. That seems pretty reasonable.

Except that I also get to pay an "O/S airtime fee," which is presumably what the US network was charging for me to take up its precious bandwidth while I was receiving calls. For that same call, I paid an "O/S airtime fee" of $29.46. A total of $34.98 just in case you’re not good at mental arithmetic.

I’m actually old enough to remember when international phone calls cost $2 a minute. Back then they would be started by the International Operator with the inflamed adenoids — you couldn’t place the call yourself. You also couldn’t cross the Pacific in one hop: you’d go Sydney to Auckland then Honolulu and then LA. And dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

Dinosaurs no longer rule the Earth, but they do seem to be in charge of the phone companies.

Remember that 18-minute phone call? That was placed by one of the Australians travelling with me. She was also roaming. So she also paid for an international call, and she also paid an "airtime fee" — not exactly the same amounts as I paid, but close enough that you can basically double the total I just gave you. That’s roughly four dollars a minute, and get this — we were about a kilometre apart at the time. I was at my hotel, she was at the Moscone Centre, and we may as well have been in different countries. As far as the phone companies were concerned, we were. The call went from her phone to the US network to which she was roaming, then over the sea to her Australian network, then over the network to my Australian network, then over the sea again to the American network to which I was roaming, and then down to me.

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