Free cell phones, huh? That's great, now how about...

Inspired by a rant I refrained from posting in this thread. Google may be in the process of developing a free cellular phone service. That’s great and all; I like Google and I love what they do, but y’know, my primary issue with cell phone carriers has never been about the pricing. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again here, and I challenge any cell phone company to call me on it: I would pay well upwards $100 a month for a no-frills, 500-minute, single-phone plan, if they could give me a phone and a service that actually fucking worked.

What do I mean by “actually fucking worked”? I mean that I want to be able to take out my mobile phone when I’m, you know, mobile, anywhere from Roanoke, VA to Mobile, Alabama to the middle of the desert in Nevada to Washington state – maybe even the mythical uncharted lands of Canada and Mexico – and have the thing, well, actually fucking work! Like, so that I could call people and stuff! On my phone! Wouldn’t that be amazing? Hell, it might even routinely work outdoors in cities where the carrier is heavily advertised, which it certainly doesn’t do now!

I maintain that the reason we’re seeing so much cell phone “feature creep” is because the major carriers have given up on making phones that actually fucking work, creating a silent mutual agreement not to bother even trying anymore, and instead competing on the basis of whose goddamned telephone has the highest-resolution camera, or the most advanced MP3 playing software, or, best of all, the sleekest design to ensure maximum breakability. Far easier to add and refine those things indefinitely than to attempt to design a phone service whose customers can make phone calls from places they might happen to be.

And you know what? I can’t really blame them, because it’s working! Nobody’s even asking them to make their shit work anymore! Look at the brouhaha over the iPhone…very shiny, very feature-y, very intuitive user interface (well I would hope so, it’s a fucking phone), MP3s, Wi-Fi, Safari browser…but can it call people? Who the fuck knows! I have yet to find a single review of the damned thing that mentions it. I know that it doesn’t have Bluetooth or 3G support; I know that the call clarity when it can make calls is decent; I know that a few people don’t like the earbuds for extended use; I know that the phone interface is easy to find and to operate (wow, I can find the phone part of my phone AND use it too? I’m sold already!)…I know all these things, but I do not know, and cannot find out without extensive research, whether this $600 pinnacle of human technology actually fucking works in its primary capacity.*

Clearly, the focus of the masses is elsewhere. We currently don’t care if our phones are functional as long as they’re sufficiently cool. That’s where the market has gone, and the carriers see no reason to try to buck the trend.

Now, at this point I’m going to go out on a limb, and posit a theory of what it would take the break this pattern of thought (or perhaps “lack thereof”, or “compliance with marketing techniques”, but I digress). I submit that all it would take is one new competitor – a company that knows how to keep it simple and functional, one that knows how to appeal to people in a commonsense manner, one that’s famous for disregarding the norm and presenting people with clear, unadulterated, “why-didn’t-we-think-of-this-before” alternatives – a company like Google – to step up to the plate and present the idea that, hey, perhaps a cell phone should actually function as a phone at the times when we’d like it to do so…and all of a sudden, we’d see the spell break. All it would take is one good smack upside the collective consumer head for people to say, waitaminute…all these years, I have been paying fifty bucks a month for the ability to use my go-anywhere phone in 40-60% of the places I actually go! I’ve never questioned it before, because I never really had any alternatives, but now that I think about it…why the hell am I doing this? Fuck that shit, I want service that works!

So, Google, my question to you is this: you can make us a phone that’s free, but can you make us a phone that works? Should you accomplish this, I, for one, would be prepared to reward you for your troubles…and I theorize that, once the word spread, I would be very far from alone.

*I could extend this rant to technology reviews in general – I’ve complained here before about the difficult time I had trying to assess whether various digital audio recorders actually recorded audio competently, rapidly becoming lost in a sea of included software packages, microphone support, USB connectivity, compression formats, range of speaker volume (…the fuck?), and other miscellania I cared not a whit about – but that’s one for another time.


You’d think they could, seeing as all their other products generally rock, but as they’re not really into making stuff you can touch, I don’t know. My search for a plain phone that makes and receives calls (and doesn’t cost something stupid) has been disheartening.

In everything I’ve heard about the iPhone, I have heard complaints about how it’s sometimes hard to dial numbers due to the touchpad thing, but that’s about it.

You’re right. I have an iPhone, and it works as well or better than any other phone I’ve used, but that’s not saying much. The cellphone providers seem to have given up extending their network. I was pissed at being forced (by ATT) to give up my old V60 TDMA phone to go to the new GSM system, because none of the new phones do analog roaming, which means that there are big sections of Arizona with no service.

One advantage the new cellphones will have over current models is that they’ll be transmitting in a lower part of the radio spectrum, so they will have better coverage. In the meantime, I suggest not buying a non-flip phone, as they have a longer antenna than the flip phone models.

It seems to me that cell phones will eventually be run mostly from satellites. I guess technically, they wouldn’t be cell phones then. But if I’m right, that would help quite a bit, I think. It could be a while though.

From what I understand, it’s up to each city to decide where and how many cell towers get placed, so if an area has bad reception it might not just be a problem with the cell service. I remember Medina, Washington putting some sort of moratorium on cell towers in the 90’s, but I don’t know the details.

You poor poor americans.

No wonder your economy is in ruins if you can get your phones working for calls. How are you ever going to get mobile email and remote calendar sync working ?

If it’ll make you feel any better I can help you move to Europe Roland Orzabal and you’ll have none of this trouble. Well, almost none.

PC Magazine just did a comprehensive review of the iPhone…and unsurprisingly, the phone itself sucked.,1895,2082435,00.asp

My HTC 8125 shares the same problem. Because the dialing is done via touchscreen you cannot dial by feel like you can with a typical button style phone.

I used to think we just had crappy cell service. I bought a new phone and discovered that no, I just had a crappy phone.

My Blackberry has a ton of features that I don’t use (yet). But it has the best reception of any phone I’ve ever used.

I’ve got no complaints about using my phone to make calls…I use Verizon, so maybe that’s it.

Also, I live in a fairly populous metro area, so I rarely experience problems.

A functioning phone is only part of the equation. For any cell phone to work, it has to be connected to a network. The network is made up of thousands of nodes, each node comrised of an antenna or a set of antennas. The antennas have to be attached to either a building or some other structure, and where there is no such structure, a tower is constructed. That’s all pretty basic.

Local zoning laws occasionally limit or prohibit the installation of antennas and/or the construction of a tower. More frequently, however, the cell tower companies must do a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether it’s worth building a tower in a largely unpopulated area (a decision driven primarily by whether any carriers will realize sufficient number of users on that particular tower to justify putting their antennas on the tower, and paying rent to the tower company). In an unpopulated area, most likely the cell companies don’t feel there is enough traffic to justify installing an antenna in the location, so the tower companies decide not to put up a tower there. It’s kind of a collective decision reached by all the companies individually.

It’s expensive to build out portions of a network, particularly in unpopulated areas. So I suspect no company will stick their neck out to be the only game in town, because it’s unlikely they’ll recover their construction costs from the occasional user.

Of course, none of that helps when you can’t get a signal. It’s still maddening.

Ditto, even when I go to a fairly rural area. Plus I get reception underground in the Metro.

Couldn’t say the same for AT&T though.

I use Verizon, here in CA, with a LG Chocolate. Although I find the interface a bit too touchy and it has extra added features I don’t want (my last phone, which I just gave up was a StarTac!), but it works. All the time, whenever I want. And for around $35 a month, plus the phone was “free”.

Where the hell were you when I owned stock in Iridium? Worst investment I ever made.

No they will not be run from satellites. There are two satellite phone networks that were started before the cell phone networks became integrated and it was easy to roam across continents cheaply. They got clobbered by cell towers. Both have gone through bankruptcy and lost the initial investors a lot of money. You can still get satellite service but it is very much a niche product.

Satellites just don’t have enough capacity to allow people to use the mobile phone as their primary phone.

You’d pay $100 for 500 minutes if the phone worked in all but the least likely locations, like deep underground or Canuckistan? Gee, I thought my pay-as-you-go Virgin plan was highish at .18/min but .18*500 is just $90 and I get service that is good enough for my needs.

Well, it’s just that with every provider I’ve tried, those being Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile, it seems that there’s an inverse relationship between my reliance on my cell phone — i.e., my proximity from other phones or other methods of communication — and my ability to use it. As McNew pointed out, there’s a legitimate reason why that’s the case, but that doesn’t stop it from being illogical on its face, and it certainly doesn’t prevent it from pissing me off.

With the amount of driving around I do, would I pay $100 a month for a near-guarantee that, if my car breaks down in the middle of Fuckville County Colorado, I won’t have to walk 50 miles speak to another human being? You bet your ass.

Roland, that’s exactly what satellite phones are for. They’re more expensive, but you’ll have much better coverage (I know fishermen get them for when they’re too far from land for a cell to work). I think it’s also possible to have both a satellite and a cell account on one phone, but don’t quote me on that one. It sounds like it might be worth looking into for you.

I mostly agree with the OP somewhat disagree with those who may point the finger at the cell towers and their placement. The reason I only mostly agree with the OP is that IMO there are phones out there with excellent coverage and battery life - the only things that a phone must have. I spend a lot of time in the sticks out at power plants, and my Motorola always exceeds anyone else’s phone for pulling in a signal. Time and again people warn me “you won’t get any cell signal at the plant”, and yet I happily can make calls all day long on its (amazing) nearly 6-hour battery.

The downside is, my phone isn’t cutesy or some rad, bad colour, or even an Apple. So obviously, I’m not teh kewlies.