Steve Effros

I’ll be getting on a plane this afternoon heading for New Zealand. For very different reasons a whole host of folks are heading into DC in the next few days, and it just seemed like an ideal time to get out of town.

No, my wife Lucia and I didn’t choose to escape just before the inauguration and the demonstrations. It just happened to be the time we had booked, almost a year ago, to head to New Zealand and take a look. The process of doing it, however, has led to one of those observations I seem to always experience that says our consumer telecom interface is still woefully bad.

Have you tried to travel and still use your smartphone? It’s an absurd mess of options, inconsistent technical variables and billing practices that make no sense at all. Do you just pay your carrier the excessive fees they charge per minute for calls back to the ‘States? You can get 3 Gigs of data for less than $50 if you buy a “chip” at the airport in Auckland and stick it in your phone, but 300 Mbs will cost you $60 if you’re stuck with a phone that hasn’t (and can’t be) “unlocked.”

Do you just use WiFi and apps like WhatsApp or FaceTime or Duo, and how much data do those apps eat up, anyway? I know, you have to set the phone to only use them on WiFi, but how do you do that? Oh, and do we really have WiFi access in all the hotels and B&Bs we’re staying in? Are you sure the folks you want to communicate with have the same app? Do they need it? I know some of the apps allow you to make calls to any phone, but what kind of “call” is that? Some, like Skype, require that you have an account “balance.” Do you?

The questions keep on piling up, and the opinions on which way to handle it all are just as numerous as the questions! That’s not good for consumers. Yes, I understand, at some point many of us throw up our hands and say forget it, I’m just going to pay the absurd fees and know that I’ve got service whenever and wherever I want it. (How much data does Google Maps eat up?…. Yup, I downloaded the maps so I can use them offline, did I need to?). On and on it goes.

Of course the entire cellular billing process in the US has been a jumble for many years with different buckets of minutes and data, but at least it was relatively easy to understand, and now we’re seeing some real price competition on those buckets or “unlimited” plans. That’s good for consumers, but I suspect it’s going to get a lot tougher on the providers as both phone and data delivery become more and more commoditized. I mention all this because if you think this is only going to happen in the smartphone business, think again. It’s coming to virtually every telecom delivery business, including video.

My recommendation: make things as simple to understand and use as you can. Be a “friend” to your customer. Prices and products, including programming, are going to flatten out and become commodities. Consumers will add and drop channels or packages at will. Customer service will decide whether they want to stay with your delivery or not. For now, I’m just hoping for text messages only for the next three weeks while I go exploring.

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