Up until July 11, 2008, I was a prepaid customer at T-Mobile. I had two phones with them--a (product) RED Motorola SLVR and a Sidekick 3. Loved them both, but needed GPS in this new city I live in called New York (note to Mayor Bloomberg: How about tax incentives to the Thomas Guide people?). Plus, I'm a gadget freak, so I was happy to choose GPS over, you know, a map, anyway.

The thing is/was, I HATE contracts. When I was with Sprint they were the biggest dicks in the world about paying late. Yes, I'm a struggling artist. Yes, I often have little money in the bank. But, yes, I always end up paying off my bills (yes, it wasn't always that way, but that was more than 7 years ago, so my credit report should be none-the-wiser!). Yet, when I would be late with my payment, Sprint would often suspend my account. I'd be out, suddenly finding a huge need to call my wife but unable to.

"Good thing this wasn't an emergency," I'd say to myself.

Sure, I could call 911 in that case, but not my wife. That seems odd to me.

ANYway, so something else I always hated about mobile phone service with a contract was that I never really knew how big my bill would be from month to month. I knew approximately, but with taxes and fees and whatever, all I knew for sure was that it would cost me more than I initially signed up for.

Likewise, when I signed up for my iPhone's voice and data plans, I knew going in that there would be extra fees attached. But I was awoken this morning to a worse surprise--I got charged more than just "taxes and fees."

But first things, first. Here comes the mystery charges--the stuff that always seems to change from plan-to-plan and even month to month (that conveniently goes away when you go pre-paid):



The above is a screencap of part of my bill. That top part is a $0.60 charge for three text messages because I didn't want to pay extra for something I hardly ever use. Of course, that was before I realized there wasn't a reasonable IM client for the iPhone yet--but that's another story. Below that are the fun fees for my home state of New York. Well, plus the $36 "Activation Fee". That kind of fee always cracks me up. We have to pay extra for them to "turn on" our account. Just a wee bit greedy there, Mr. AT&T!

Then we've got a true puzzler:

COUNTY GROSS RECEIPTS SURCHARGE $3.00

The county I live in needs $3 per bill? Why? I just moved here, but I wonder if this fee is something that my neighbors voted on. I mean, what person in their right mind would be like "Yes! I think the county should be able to charge my wireless carrier $3 for... for... something, knowing full well that my wireless carrier will pass that charge onto me!"

Couldn't we just get an extra $36 taken out of our taxes every year?

Same goes for the following:

FEDERAL UNIVERSAL SERVICE CHARGE $2.96

What the hell does this even mean??? Seriously, I have no idea.

MTA TELECOM SURCHARGE $0.91

Uhhh, the only MTA I know of is the company that runs the subways. Why would they be charging me money? From what little I could find on the 'net about this, it seems like the MTA charges cell phone users in the NYC area for the MTA. WOW, that's LAME. So, rather than taxing EVERYONE for MTA they punish JUST the mobile phone users. Weak. After all, mass transit helps everyone--cheaper bus and train fares encourages more people to stop driving and therefore helps cut down on traffic--so everyone benefits from everyone helping.

STATE TELECOMMUNICATIONS EXCISE SURCHARGE $3.82

Looks like another tax, this time from the state, instead of the county, that the AT&T is charged but passes on to us so they don't lose any money. Still sounds like it should come out of taxes.

Oh, this is probably my favorite:

REGULATORY COST RECOVERY CHARGE $0.91

OK, this is likely one of two things:

1) It's the money AT&T spent in complying with regulations.

2) It's the money the state/county/USG charges AT&T to help the state/county/USG pay for regulating wireless carriers.

Those are my guesses and either way, it's pretty lame to charge us for the cost of business.

So, all that equates to $47.60, but since this is my first iPhone bill, the $36 "activation fee" should be missing on my next bill dropping the cost of this section down to $11.60--possibly less if the fees in this section are based on percentages. That's not too bad, but wait--there's MORE! You also get:

NEW YORK STATE FEE $1.20
STATE SALES TAX $5.99 (!!!)
LOCAL WIRELESS SURCHARGE $0.30
CITY SALES TAX $6.55 (!!!!!)
TOTAL $14.04

WTF is all that?? More damn taxes including TWO WAVES OF SALES TAXES!! How does both the state AND the city get off charging us sales tax?? That's just not fair!! I should get a PO box out in Jersey and change my mailing address to that on my AT&T account and see what happens.

When I buy a bag of chips, here in Manhattan, do I get charged city sales tax AND state sales tax? I don't think so. I think I'll ask for a receipt next time just to be sure.

So, there's the big mystery part of the bill solved--total charges for seemingly-unrelated-to-mobile-phone-service fees? This month: $61.64. Next month (sans activation fee): $25.64. That's still an awful lot of money on top of a $70.00 basic charge. Hopefully that's a little high, but we'll see in 30 days.

The thing is, that's not the end of the rude surprises in my first iPhone bill. I'd imagine the next surprise hit every single person who bought an iPhone on July 11, 2008. I can't imagine why this would happen at all, but on those grounds, I can't imagine that this happened to just me.

Check this out:


Isn't that nice? For some unknown reason AT&T decided to push my billing cycle back to the 26th of each month, rather than just having it start on the 11th, which happens to be the day I actually started using the service.

So, sure, those two weeks they're charging me would have been charged to me anyway, but who said I wanted to pay for those two weeks in my first bill?? Why not just do a billing cycle of 7/11 to 8/10? Why play games like this for no apparent reason and without my permission (or knowledge)?

See, this is why I hate contracts. When I prepaid my minutes with T-Mobile, they may have cost more, but--hey, wait a minute. I wonder if they really do since all those taxes and fees are folded into the prepaid minute charges. I can't be sure, since my AT&T voice account was divided into day minutes and night/weekend minutes, but considering I spent about $30 a month on my Sidekick and about the same on my SLVR, I definitely think I came out ahead on that. Which means I'm probably paying more than I'd have to.

Sure, you could argue that AT&T should charge more since they've got 3G (which I turn off because it sucks battery and actually gives me crappier reception) and I use my data plan a LOT more than I did with the Sidekick. Then again, do you think they're really charging us what they should? Do you think AT&T is charging us just enough to survive? Or do you think their goal is to get rich?

So, the same way that it's their right to charge what they want as business people, it's our right as consumers to pay as little as we can get away with. If AT&T were about innovation, their 3G network would be everywhere and Apple's phone wouldn't have so many glaring flaws.

To top it off, I only found out about this "bill" because I got an email from PageOnce.com--a service that keeps track of things like your cell phone bill and your bank accounts. So, AT&T's default setting for people who opt into the "paperless billing" feature is "no email." Isn't that nice? My bill is due in three days.

Yes, I know that I'm an adult and I can tell how long 30 days is, but enough apologisting for the giant corporation! It takes NO effort whatsoever to program a script that will automatically email customers when their bill is ready.

So, there you have it.

Mobile phone carriers never fail to depress me. :) As soon as there's a way to unlock the iPhone and as soon as I have that $175 early termination fee, I'm jumping ship on AT&T and returning to my contract-free ways. Hell, I might not even wait that long since GPS works without a carrier and open wifi networks aren't that uncommon here in the big city.

Why must cell phone companies suck so much?

And don't ask me "why are you so cheap?" or "why don't you want to pay for anything?" because I'm being just as economical as corporations are.

I'll probably end up back with T-Mo on one of their month-to-month plans. The 1g iPhone worked on their network. I'm sure eventually the 2g (3G) iPhone will, too.

The really sad thing is, I didn't use anywhere near my total minutes! So not fair!