AT&T Phones Home

Zoolander_PhoneThis will no doubt offend all the loyal members of AT&T’s fan club… oh, wait, there’s no such thing. I mean, who likes AT&T, amirite? And not many people care for Verizon, either. It might have something to do with the fact that they are both money grubbing behemoths offering lousy service at exorbitant prices with no discernible charm to make up for their magnificently convoluted service agreements.

I only say that because today I had the pleasure of dealing with the alternative: a cell phone company that delivers. MTN is a huge player in Africa and the Middle East, so, certainly still a multinational in the true sense of the word. But perhaps because of the marketplace in which it operates, the company seems to be infinitely more customer-oriented, nimble and likeable than its bloated American counterparts.

No contract. No waiting time or unreasonable commitment; no “discounted” crappy phones that lock you in to a plan beyond the expected lifetime of the semi-disposable piece of junk. No, for the equivalent of about $2 you buy a SIM card for your phone, and then you buy airtime for your phone in your choice of denomination on a scratch card. You dial in, upload your purchased credit – and you’re good to go. It takes about 30 seconds to get dialing. Calls and texts cost less than a cent a minute, and even after you’ve run out of credit, you can still receive free incoming calls.

Oh, and have you ever tried to call internationally with your US cell phone? First, you’re required to jump through countless hoops to even enable that feature — not least of all payment of a monthly fee, and then you’re looking at rates of a-buck-and-change a minute. In contrast, we just called the US from here on a cell phone — no fee, no hurdles, no nothing, the connection was great, and the cost was about 8 cents a minute that simply came out of our pre-paid card value.

But the best part – the very best part, compared to Vermont and New Hampshire – is this: the coverage is flawless. Now, mind you, we’re talking Rwanda here – a developing country with huge swaths of open land between the few city centers, and substantial mountains and hills everywhere. But unlike, say, downtown Norwich, where I can barely get a dial tone in my own house, fercryinoutloud, I’ve had five bars all day long, inside and out while roaming around Kigali.

It’s a bit of a mindfuck to come to realize that a country this far down the socio-economic foodchain is running circles around the United States on something as vital as telecommunications. And it is doing so not thanks to the kind of state subsidies which, ironically, AT&T and the other huge US players have been getting for decades in the form of tax breaks and unfair access to bandwidth. MTN may not be able to deliver its shareholders the same mindblowingly obscene profits that AT&T and Verizon can each year with their contracts and gimmicky price gouging — instead, MTN appears to have decided to deliver a decent product at a decent price to lock in customer loyalty. As far as I can tell, it works.

A brief aside: in order to be temporarily “freed” from our indentured slavery to AT&T’s contract back home, we had to pay $10 a month per line. That’s right: AT&T will charge you $10 a month in order to *not* provide you with service. And they suck so badly it’s actually a good deal, because normally we’re paying $30 per line per month for no service. Then we had to beg and grovel to get the unlock codes that allowed us to remove the AT&T SIM cards from our phones and insert the MTN cards we bought here. It’s a bit like breaking up with a clingy lover as the AT&T service rep whines: “well, why would you need to go elsewhere… do you really need to use someone else’s card? Are you sure our roaming isn’t right for our relationship?”

Tomorrow we’re off to touch base with another innovative provider of essential services: a cell-based internet provider that for a mere $40 a month will give you decent and reliable connectivity, again without the commitment or overpriced marketing-driven bloat-ware that comes with your average Comcast package.

(yes, that’s Derek Zoolander with his ridiculously tiny phone. Lucas watched the movie this morning while he and I waited for the rest of the jet-lagged L-team to wake up).