According to the Chinese calendar, it's the year of the Golden Tiger. But for mobile users in the US, 2010 is the Year Wireless Carriers Tried to Screw You.
Don't think the phone companies' actions warrant their own year? Check out how they've systematically conned consumers using hidden fees, self-imposed hardware limitations, restricted speech, and the mangling of perfectly good software.
Below is a list of the top ten ways your mobile phone company tried to screw you in 2010:
Verizon users who had the gall to accidentally go online without a data plan were charged anyway, even if they immediately closed up their mobile browser. The Federal Communications Commission opened up an investigation, but Verizon is attempting to defuse any federal action by reimbursing between $30 and $90 million to affected consumers. The FCC is still investigating, however, and may yet impose its own fine.
Phone companies have already been charging absurdly high fees -- between $150 and $200 - for exiting your wireless contracts early. The carriers argued that the fee subsidized the cost of your phone. But then Verizon *doubled* its early termination fee (ETF) for "advanced devices" -- not just smart phones -- making it virtually impossible for people to leave Verizon behind without taking a hit.
The increase makes it clear that these fees aren't intended to make up for the phone subsidy, but instead to reduce churn, i.e., to stop people from using their consumer power to take their business elsewhere.
If proud owners of T-Mobile's new G2 Android phone -- a great-looking device -- try to hack it to gain "root" access so they can install modified software, the phone overrides the modification and reinstalls the original software. As the New America Foundation points out, this is akin to Microsoft disliking the modifications you're making to your computer, and then remotely reinstalling Windows.
Consumers are already paying $200 plus for a two-year contract to use this phone. Shouldn't they be able to modify it as they wish? Congress and the FCC have both started to look more closely at the wireless industry's myriad bad practices. This one begs a closer look, too.
Free speech advocates raised a stink after Apple's app store rejected political cartoons from Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore. It seems that Apple's response to the popularity of the app store - and its stated need to maintain the platform's integrity - was to crack down on anything it deemed offensive.
Given that millions of people depend on Apple's platform for their information, some have argued that the company has too much oversight over free expression. Apple has since defined its restrictions on content (and accepted Fiore's cartoons), which placates some critics. But the problem remains that a giant tech company is now in the position of gatekeeping content and speech -- not an ideal position.
6. T-Mobile Announces New "Text Tax" Targeting Texts Sent from Businesses
On top of text-messaging fees, T-Mobile is charging an additional one-quarter of one cent on each per short code-driven text message sent by businesses and organizations. This may sound like small change, but this tax could cost some services thousands *per day*. Undoubtedly, this new fee will get passed on to users in the form of higher costs or lack of access.
A text-messaging company called EZ Texting sued T-Mobile, claiming that the carrier blocked certain short code-driven texts because it didn't approve of messages from WeedMaps.com, a website that provides maps of *legal* medical marijuana fields. It goes without saying that if companies are promoting legal activity -- and WeedMaps.com qualifies as legal -- then the carriers have no business blocking their texts.
A new Android phone from Samsung is seriously hobbled by Verizon. The carrier removed Google' default -- and excellent -- search function in favor of Microsoft's Bing, and the phone is missing Google Maps because it's pushing Verizon's inferior (and paid) maps service. Were it not for its everlasting Bingness and additional bloatware, the Fascinate could hang with powerful phones like those in the official Droid line. But Verizon is determined to kill that possibility in the name of bloat, like a maps application that, by all accounts, kind of sucks.
In an expected but still frustrating set of announcements, the biggest two wireless carriers did away with unlimited data plans. AT&T timed its announcement with the launch of the iPad; Verizon has yet to describe its actual plans, but it confirmed that unlimited data will go the way of the carphone soon enough.
The problem with these changes? Just as the public appetite for data is rising -- thanks to apps like Netflix on the iPhone -- the carriers are limiting the amount that we can consume for a reasonable price. So while new iPhone or iPad users might think a $15/month plan for 200 MB of data is a good deal, they should know that streaming just *one* movie on Netflix will blow their data allotment. For every extra 200 MB (or another movie), they'll be charged another $15. With charges like those, you might as well go to the movie theater, and buy a large popcorn while you're at it.
Earlier this year, thousands of Americans donated to Haiti relief efforts, simply by sending text messages from their phones and donating $10 on the spot. It was a cool and easy way to donate to a good cause. Like many other charities, Catholic Relief Services saw an opportunity to raise much more than that by using a "text to call" application.
But Sprint Nextel got in the way, and three days after Catholic Relief Services launched its application, the carrier demanded that it be shut down. It seems that Sprint, like the other major carriers, wants complete control over how we use text messages, including dictating which apps nonprofits use for fundraising.
In the absence of action from the FCC and Congress on Net Neutrality, Google and Verizon stepped in to fill the void, announcing a proposal that paid lip service to the open Internet but actually would gut the principle completely.
The companies suggested massive loopholes that would kill Net Neutrality as we know it, and leave the mobile Internet completely unprotected. The result would be a two-tiered Internet with faster speeds for businesses and individuals who could afford it, and the go-ahead for carriers to block any websites, and nearly any applications, they want on mobile devices.
It's only October, so it's a good bet we'll see some more mobile doozies before the year is out; I'll be sure to update this list if we do. Let's make next year the Year of Mobile Freedom!
In the meantime, it's time to tell Washington to do something about these egregious practices. Go here to free your phone: http://act2.freepress.net/letter/real_internet/
Follow Josh Levy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/levjoy