Last week, Virgin Mobile made waves by announcing their plans to sell nothing but iPhones. This was an odd announcement, especially considering prepaid carriers usually cater to people who don’t like paying big bucks for phones. The whole situation seems so crazy. A carrier telling you what phones you can buy. But the truth is major carriers already do this in more subtle ways and it sucks.
Back in the day, it was very common to see smartphones launch on one carrier. The G1 was only available on T-Mobile, the Moto DROID was exclusive to Verizon, and the iPhone was only on AT&T for a long time. Even the Palm Pre was only available on Sprint. As smartphones have become more popular, that practice has died down. Unlocked devices, like the Pixel, are more common. And the iPhone and Galaxy phones are available everywhere.
The exclusive carrier situation isn’t something that gets talked about a lot these days, but it’s still a big problem in the U.S. Carriers control way too much of our mobile lives. Why does my LG G6 have an AT&T logo on the back? My laptop doesn’t have a Comcast logo anywhere on it. Why do carriers get to decide how you’re using their data by limiting streaming video quality? You pay for the data, you should be able to burn through it as fast as you want.
Here in the U.S., carriers desperately want to be more than just “dumb pipes.” A dumb pipe is a network that simply allows you to use the internet. Think of it like your electric company. All they do is provide access to electricity in your home. You are free to use it however you want as long as you pay for it. There isn’t a sign on the front of your house or lightbulbs that are only compatible with your company. It’s a simple service.
That is exactly what carriers don’t want to be. They want to make you sign contracts and bundle a bunch of other crap on your bill. They want their stores to feel like the only place you need to go for phones, accessories, and access to the internet. Now, Virgin Mobile wants to only give you one choice when it comes to phones. This is not how any of this should work.
The internet is a basic human right, just like water and electricity. But getting a simple data plan for your phone has become a huge hassle. You have to figure out what phone is compatible with a network that offers coverage in your area. Then you have to figure out if you want to buy it outright or make monthly payments. How much data do you need? What happens if you go over? What if your phone breaks before you can get a new one?
Let’s take carriers completely out of the equation. Getting a data plan for your phone should be so much easier. Buy a phone from wherever you want. Get a SIM card from the carrier with the best coverage. Pay for the data you use every month. That’s it. No contracts, payment plans, limits, throttling, pre-loaded apps, or ugly logos.
In some ways, we’re moving in the right direction. It is actually possible to do the above if you know where to look. It’s a lot more common nowadays to buy an unlocked phone and bring it to your carrier. Very few people were willing to pay full price for a phone back in the early days of smartphones. Everyone thought a new phone cost $199.99. We’ve slowly moved past those subsidized prices.
Unfortunately, we’re also moving in the wrong direction in a lot of ways. “Unlimited” data plans come with tons of fine print and red tape. Some carriers won’t even let you watch YouTube videos in HD when you’re on their network. T-Mobile allows certain services not to count towards your data plan, which sounds great, but it creates bias and is just another way to lock you in.
Carriers want to be the top dogs in the mobile world. They want everything from the phone you use to the apps you download to go through them. In a lot of countries it doesn’t work like that, but here in the U.S., you can’t go anywhere without seeing this face. Virgin Mobile’s iPhone plan may actually be a good deal, but it’s not something a carrier should ever offer. A carrier should not dictate the phone you choose or the apps you use.
How do you feel about carriers here in the U.S.? Are you happy with the role they play in the industry? What would you like them to do differently?