Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Useful Cell Phone Feature

Many people are unhappy with the size of their cell phone bills but imagine the shock a Quebec woman got when she was charged $47,000! Her story had a happy ending, but many others whose stories don’t make the news aren’t so lucky.

From an informal poll of a few friends it seems that getting hit with an unexpectedly high cell phone bill is quite common. Maybe they’re not as high as $47,000, but they are higher than anticipated. This happens often enough that it seems to be part of the business plan of cell phone providers.

A useful feature to protect cell phone users would be a monthly cap. If I expect my usual cell phone bill to be $100, I might volunteer for a feature where my service gets shut off if my monthly bill hits say $500. The idea is that this would be an immediate cut-off so that my bill could never exceed $500. This would only happen if I were being hit with some expensive charge that I didn’t understand in advance.

Some people wouldn’t want such a feature, but I think many would like it. Cell phone providers are unlikely to offer it unless forced to, but I can dream of a world where consumers are protected from random massive bills.


  1. I'd be even happier if we had a law for cell/data usage similar to the usury laws for interest so these types of bills simply couldn't happen.

    In this case in particular though, I was dumbfounded by this:

    "Ever since, her cellphone bills have been at least five figures, including one for $12, 000."

    Why would she continue with Bell for several more months after that first bill? Or at least leave after the second 5-figure bill?

  2. @Potato: I'm not sure how to legislate the concept of "don't treat your customers unfairly" other than to have some sort of dollar cap.

    I had the same question about the woman continuing to use the cell phone and getting 5-figure bills. The article implied that she had trouble understanding her bills. There wasn't any further explanation.

  3. This highlights the advantages of pay as you go plans. I have $115 in credit on my phone, and pay $.25 per minute voice and $.10 per text. If I run up a huge bill, I run out of money.

    Throwing a data plan on would eat that $115 pretty quickly, but the pre-paid nature of my cell phone would still limit my spending in the way you mention. I imagine your Petro Canada phone works the same way.

  4. @Gene: Yes, my Petro Canada cell phone simply stops working when the prepaid money runs out. I like it that way. So we have the feature I'm calling for built in to our cell phone plans. It would be nice if other cell phone users had similar protection.

  5. I was thinking of a cap on the per-minute/usage rates. To get to $47,000 in a month with two phones, each had to be racking up charges at over $1/min for 12 hours a day, every day. Aside from long-distance to obscure countries, nothing you can do on your cellphone should ever cost anywhere close to $1/min to deliver (and since they weren't likely using their phones that much, the usage charges they were incurring must have been even steeper).

  6. @Potato: That's an interesting idea. Have users sign up for just features that cost less than some maximum number of cents per minute. Any more expensive features would be blocked.

  7. Unfairness stops when there is REAL competition! We all know that in cellphone industry there is an image only of competition. 3 companies: Telus, Rogers, Bell, each with domination in specific provinces, is not what I would call competition. We all know what outraged it caused amongst them Wind Mobile when it entered the Canadian cell-phone market. The only place where government should intervene is encouraging competition and fighting monopoly, visible or hidden.

  8. @Andi: There are other options than the big three. I have a Petro Canada phone and pay less than $90 per year because it is prepaid and I don't use it much. I'm sure there are people paying much more to one of the big three who could get by with a cheap cell phone.