I’ve received a terrific amount of feedback from readers on the first post (“The USA Series: Prelude to buying a mobile phone in America“). The vast majority of comments have been shock (from the European readers), frowning acknowledgement (from the Americans) and quite a few flames (from the know-nothings who refuse to recognise or exist in reality).
Do get a good cup of coffee for I am about to dispense with my experiences. Before I do, for the ultra outraged flamers who believe I’m denigrating the good ‘ol United States with my posts (I’ve had a few hothead communications since the first post), let me answer their accusations with an illustration:
George Bush and Tony Blair are at a White House press briefing. It’s being beamed round the world in real time. I’m sat watching on CNN. Blair steps up to the podium and takes multiple questions from the press. A few curveballs but he manages well. It’s te first time he and Bush have met so the last question (if memory serves, I’m paraphrasing in these examples) is “What common ground have you and the President discovered?”
Blair, ever the Statesman, opines about the ‘special relationship’, the commonality of spirit, the shared values of freedom, decency and peace — and so on. A good, off-the-cuff reposte. Whatever your politics, Blair can definitely hack it on the world stage, no problem.
The journalist poses the same question to President Bush (“Have you and Mr Blair found common ground?”). Bush does a blank stare for a few moments, smiles whilst thinking hard. “Well,” begins Bush, “I found out we use the same toothpaste.”
My point? Your Government is doing fine trashing the American reputation. Doesn’t need any help from me.
Me? I’m a big fan of America. Particularly the West Coast — because it’s a lot warmer. So, to be clear before anyone else thinks I’m trashing America: It’s the lack of innovation I’m trashing. The general spirit of the industry. The backward nature of the medium from the consumer viewpoint. Not the country, not the country’s values, not the flag.
Now, a step back about a month. It’s December and I’ve just arrived in America.
– – –
Here I am then, twenty-four hours in San Francisco. I’ve moved, temporarily, to the city by the Bay, to explore the mobile industry and meet with some innovative mobile companies. I’ll be here for just under three months. The first thing I did yesterday was go and get a car. You can’t do anything, really, in America, without a car. It’s possible to walk to places here in the city, but if you’re planning on going anywhere, seeing the sights, doing some mobile-company-drop-ins, then you really need a car.
A visit to Enterprise and we were sorted.
The next problem? No mobile phone. This particular issue had been eating me up since I arrived at the airport. Yes, I had my UK T-Mobile, my 3UK handset and my trusty MAXroam SIM (never leave home without your MAXroam), but I wanted to experience the whole ‘call me on 415…’ thing.
For decades I’ve been watching American movies and television shows featuring 10 digit mobile numbers (“212-555-5555”). In the past few years I’ve been trying to test out American-made mobile applications but have often had to apologise to eager entrepreneurs, explain that my UK mobile number is 11 digits (or more with the international code) — and generally, the sign-up boxes for many American mobile applications only allow ten digits. I’ve thus been reduced to peering in the window.
I wanted to see what it was like. I didn’t want to just look and empathise. I wanted to live it. Pay as you go would be fine of course. But I really wanted a contract. I wanted the full experience of buying a contract handset in America.
So after getting the car, the first thing I did was drive to the Stonestown Mall nearby. I’d done some research and found that it contained a Sprint store. Now there’s quite a few mobile phone shops around San Francisco but none that I was comfortable driving to, yet. Swapping to driving on the right is unnerving enough without having to arse about with a reverse park on a busy road, just so I could visit a phone shop.
Arriving at the mall, I made a bee-line to the Sprint store. I’d heard one or two comments about Sprint in the past but, crucially, none that I could remember.
The store looked bright, it was clean, there were quite a few special offers in the window. I looked in. It was empty. Just the sales chap typing away on his computer. There were quite a few handsets on the walls and a few laptops setup showcasing services.
“Fine,” I thought, “Let’s pop in.”
I walked in and had a look around. The chap looked up and said hi. Friendly.
As for decor, well, think ‘upscale hardware shop’ in yellow. We’re not talking Vodafone or 3UK flashy graphics, pumping sounds, 50 inch plasmas or the like. A quiet, sedate, bordering-on-functional store. Lots of yellow (that’s Sprint’s colour).
“Can I help you?” asked a chap.
“Er,” I thought, “Yes, I’m looking for a phone.”
We had a conversation. The chap was polite, attentive and friendly. I explained I was from the UK and I needed a phone to use for three months.
He pointed me toward their Boost Mobile stand. For some reason I went with the flow and thought, ‘Yeah, Pay as You Go. Fine for me. Let’s try it out.’
“These are our pay as you go services,” he explained. He detailed the prices of the handsets. I picked one for $50 and asked him what the call charges would be to the United Kingdom.
“Let me just check,” he said. He went into the back of the store and brought out a new shiny Apple MacBook Pro and logged on to Boostmobile.com.
As he navigated around the website I caught sight of the Sprint PCI Express data card sticking out of the laptop.
“Are you on WiFi?” I asked him.
“No, Sprint,” he replied, finding the right page for Boost’s international mobile charges.
He was navigating around the web faster than I’d ever seen. I was supremely impressed. The data speed was just phenomenal, continuous, reliable. I was immediately taken with the card. Even more so when the chap pointed out the fantastic tariffs.
But focus. Focus MacLeod!
“It’s 25 cents a minute,” the chap explained.
“Right, give me two of those Boost mobiles,” I declared, my mind still lingering on the data card. [One for me, one for the other half]
I forgot the data card as the chap demonstrated push-to-talk working with Boost. Really, really smart. I’d never actually seen it ‘live’ in the flesh before. We don’t have anything like that in the UK unfortunately.
I walked out the store with two Boost Mobiles (or ‘mobils’ — that’s how Americans seem to pronounce ‘mobile’) and felt good. I’d initially thought about a contract but, screw it, Pay As You Go is fine, right?
I spent a day winding up my other half by making push-to-talk ‘calls’ every five minutes. It’s an acutely annoying medium if you get a push-to-talk message whilst browsing in a very quite upscale boutique shop.
Quickly I exhausted my credit. I logged on to Boostmobile.com and looked for the credit card recharge option.
Arse. You can’t do it online. You have to phone them. How stupid. I phoned up customer services to setup my credit card. We got into all sorts of trouble together unfortunately. First off, the line was really bad. Think VOIP running over a 9k/sec connection whilst someone is downloading a 100 meg file. Boost itself was fine when calling other numbers. But calling customer services was painful. Secondly, they didn’t quite get the international ‘thing’, repeatedly asking me what State my credit card was registered to and getting severely annoyed when I refused to give them a numerical zip code (“It’s a BRITISH POST CODE”).
Eventually I gave up. I went to Walgreens — a ‘pharmacy’ similar to Boots in the UK — and purchased a $20 credit for both phones. Logged on to Boostmobile.com and … well, my credit upload worked. Hers didn’t. The card had already been used. I couldn’t be arsed phoning customer services. I bought another card only to find that we couldn’t login to Boostmobile.com because she’d forgotten her PIN number and customer services were… well, you’ve guessed it, yes? They were distinctly unhelpful.
I need to transact business internationally. Although I’ve got my MAXroam, I would like an ‘American’ handset — and by this time after messing around with Boost — I decided it was time I got a contract handset, whatever the cost.
I’m going to be here for three months. Might as well.
I went mobile phone shopping. And that’s where the nightmare began.
I’d had good service at Sprint but I thought I’d check out the other mobile operator stores and see what they were offering. Obviously my demands were quite different from your usual American. This became immediately clear when I walked into the Verizon shop on Market Street, one of San Francisco’s main thoroughfares.
I didn’t bother looking at the handsets, instead I headed straight up to the sales desk. I’d spent the whole night previously working out the best possible introductory pitch to the shop salesmen to make things as easy as possible. Here’s the pitched I decided upon:
“I’d like a contract. I’m here for three months and I’ll be returning to America regularly. I am a British subject therefore I don’t have a social security number and thus cannot pass a credit check. I need to call the United Kingdom regularly so I’d like an add-on that lets me call the UK cheaply. Money, within reason, isn’t an issue.”
I thought that initial pitch would tell the salesman everything he needed to know. I also reckoned that it would be a good comparison to put that to each mobile operator salesman and see what they come up with.
My experience of Verizon was severely limited. I knew it’s linked to the Vodafone group, that it’s CDMA and that it’s supposedly ‘Americas Most Reliable Network’. There are billboards all over the place announcing this to all and sundry.
So after delivering my pitch, I stood back slightly and waited.
I was surprised. Very surprised.
“Well er, your best bet is to get a calling card sir.”
“Sorry? No, I want a contract. Could you tell me about your international rates to the UK?”
I was staggered by the chap’s immediate animosity. I was prepared for an engagement — a discussion — a bit of ‘discovery’ and, frankly, I was expecting him to get out a brochure and start walking me through price plan options.
Instead, he folded his arms and repeated, “Just go and get a calling card in Walgreens across the road.”
“Listen, it’s ok, I’ve got money,” I explained, “Can’t I just get a contract?”
He grimaced at me. I was, clearly, a piece of shit, as far as he was concerned. I should point out I was dressed reasonably smartly. Jeans, jumper, iPhone, Nokia N95 and SHOES. I wasn’t even wearing trainers! (“sneakers”).
He stared derisively at me, then uttered, “It’s 400 bucks.”
“What is?” I asked. A sign! Movement!
“400 bucks deposit, to get an account,” he explained.
I did some ultra quick, ultra simple maths. 400 dollars is 200 pounds. Steep, but with most US Pay as you Go networks charging upwards of $1.60 per minute to call the UK, I’d have gone through 400 dollars worth of credit quickly. Plus, it’s entirely a business expense.
“Ok, that’s fine,” I said, taking out my passport and credit card. Your move, PUNK!
The chap’s pupils enlarged. He was clearly annoyed that his ploy hadn’t worked.
“It’s a two year contract,” was his next stupid statement. Take my money already!
“I understand, that’s perfectly fine,” I replied. At this point I’d had enough. I’d already looked up all these details on the internet and knew that I could terminate my contract — yes there’d be a fee — but all the termination and deposit fees in the world would be nothing compared to the costs of making 120 minutes worth of international mobile calls to the UK each day. I needed a work-horse of a phone to transact business while I was out here.
“I’m fine,” I explained, “with a 2 year contract, that’s no problem at all.”
Could we get on with doing business? No.
“Just, go and get a calling card,” he snapped and promptly turned his back and asked another customer if they needed help.
Transaction closed. OOOkay.
So, that’s Verizon, eh?
Coming shortly… my experiences trying to buy a phone at T-Mobile USA, AT&T, Sprint and Helio.