Living without a plan

Those who know me are acutely aware of how much I detest cellphones – or more accurately the loudness, rudeness and incessant inane (and sometimes dangerous) babbling of some of those who use them, particularly while driving.

However, there have been too many occasions over the past few months when I have found myself wishing I had one – like passing Wal-Mart on the way home only to be greeted with “Could you run up to Wal-Mart and get some milk?” Bah.

On the other hand, I am reluctant to pay out big money for a phone that I will use perhaps thirty minutes a month. Adding a second phone to Milady’s plan would have set me back $20/month – twice as much as I was willing to pay – so I started looking elsewhere. Many of the big providers offered “pay-as-you-go” plans, but these invariably had a $20/month minimum requirement, which was no better. For a while I considered Tracfone, but a combination of ugly phones and complicated plans put me off. Then I stumbled across Virgin Mobile.

The next stage was to do some research into their “small print”. Lessee… no contracts, no commitments, no activation/deactivation fees and no monthly bills. So far so good. There was a $10 sign-up bonus, a $5 one-off credit-card bonus and a $5 “pass-it-on” bonus (for passing on a previously-used phone).

You can “top-up” your credit balance using your credit card or by buying “top-up” cards. The minimum top-up amount is $20. Topping up can be done on the phone or through the web. The only condition that I could find was that to keep your phone active requires adding at least $20 every 90 days, which works out to less than $7 per month, or roughly one minute a day. Calls anywhere in the country are 25c/min for the first ten minutes each day and 10c/min thereafter. Text messages cost 10c to send and are free to receive.

One look at their website and it soon becomes obvious that the service is blatantly pitched at young people. Most of the imagery is of the Yo/Hip/Dude variety. Nothing wrong with that – for an oldster like me it is more amusing than anything else – but I suspect that they are doing themselves no favors by excluding a large market that does not find that approach appealing.

For instance, men.

Most cellphones are marketed to women. Why? Because they do most of the talking. That’s not misogyny, it’s just the way things are. A secondary market is teenagers, all of whom seem to want one, but not all of whom can afford one. Many men aged 25-50 need to be reachable but don’t need a whole bundle of minutes or a whole lot of hassle for a phone they rarely use. Anyway, I digress. The verbiage on VM’s website was refreshingly simple and user-friendly, giving the impression that it was written by real people and not by lawyers.

I then tried calling their support line and made the acquaintance of Simone, an interactive automated phone routing system. Now I detest phone routing systems, but Simone was the best that I have encountered. Besides, telling her “live advisor” a few times was enough to get me through to a real person. The wait time was about three minutes. Not too shabby if you are calling from a land line, but a little frustrating if you are calling from your VM cellphone.

Phones range in price from $60 to $150. All the phones were nice, if somewhat youth-oriented. I fell in love with the V5 “Slider” (Kyocera SE47), but at $150 it was a little more than I wanted to pay. Not long afterwards, they discounted the phone to $100, as the phone is being discontinued – but I picked up a used one on eBay for $61+shipping, which included a case and a spare battery.

Signing up was simple – you can do it through the web or Simone, but I insisted on shouting “live advisor” until she put me through to a real person. The process took about ten minutes, after which it the phone was usable, though some features such as voicemail took about a day to come on-line.

Getting your balance is free, though setting up voicemail for the first time entails a four-minute call from the cellphone, but it’s a dollar well spent – and voicemail can subsequently be picked up using a landline at no cost – another cost saver.

The killer feature for me is the free receiving of text messages. It is possible to send a short (up to 160 chars) e-mail message to the phone which is free to read. VM support did not know about this, but it was on their website. I have tested this and it takes anything from five seconds to two minutes to receive – great when I am on the move and Milady wants to “beam down” her shopping list – and free, to boot!

Verdict: This is far and away best plan I have seen if you are an occasional user (60 mins/month or less). For those with a teenager who “needs” a phone (don’t they all?) this may be a good way to teach them how to use phones sparingly and responsibly – no credit card is needed and the use of top-up cards means that they will can only use what they have paid for, and will therefore have to find the money to “finance their own habit”. The phone is nice too… but that is another story for another time.

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