The other day I received an email appeal from Free Press, “a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to reform the media,” to urge the FCC to end unreasonable penalties for switching cell phone providers or cancelling service.
Free Press’ mobile phone campaigns fly under a “Free My Phone” banner and feature a cell phone angelically equipped with white wings. For this specific campaign, though, the phone has been retouched with an angry facial expression and the indecorous exclamation “ETF, WTF?” The ETF stands for the “early termination fees” charged by cell phone carriers. And you know what the WTF stands for.
Free Press is fuming that “carriers still force us to pay outrageous penalties — up to $350 — if we cancel our phone service or switch carriers. There’s one question on everyone’s mind: WTF?” (Not everyone may phrase it that way, but it’s certainly a good question why termination fees are so high. After all, if you want to cancel your cable service, providers don’t hit you with exorbitant fees.)
Apparently, the FCC is asking the same question (though, perhaps, without the “WTF?”): “After Washington threatened to investigate its activity, Verizon began pro-rating its ETF (so you would owe less for every month of your contract). Google and T-Mobile also lowered the combined ETF on the Google phone from a whopping $550 to $350 — still obscene — after a FCC letter of inquiry about their behavior.”
In their letter appealing to the FCC, Free Press makes it case by saying that “for millions of Americans, mobile devices represent the future of the Internet. Mass adoption of new ‘smart’ phones is sparking online innovation and blurring the lines separating the wired and wireless Web.”
More and more consumers are certainly starting to use mobile phones to access the Web, and early termination fees are unreasonably high. This is all true enough. But do early termination fees really block access to information? Do they have any impact on the quality of the media broadcast through mobile platforms?
I sympathize with the urge to reduce termination fees and applaud Free Press for lobbying the FCC. But what remains unmentioned in this campaign is that these fees are symptoms of a monopolistic power play by carriers and device makers like Apple. What really will “free my phone” is to take players vying for dominance in the smartphone market to task when they create closed platforms with consumers locked into services and subscriptions, whether they want to or not. Even if AT&T would let iPhone users walk away from their service, they still can’t take their iPhone and use it on a different network, or sell it to a friend for use without voice or data services (as an iPod touch).
Perhaps this is beyond the scope of the current Free Press campaign, but the focus on early termination fees seems like a populist cheap shot, narrowly missing the real target: open platforms and full consumer ownership of smartphones.
This post was first published, in slightly longer form, on the blog @peterlux.
Peter Luyckx is the Managing Editor at Flip the Media. Recently, he worked as a Web Producer and Editor at Microsoft’s MSN Health & Fitness and MSN Shopping (now Bing). He co-founded and published the environmental newsletter The Frugal Environmentalist. He is a graduate student in the MCDM program and can be followed on Twitter @ peterlux.