Viewpoint: AT&T fee hike reflects scary trend among companies

By Chris Derrett
Editor in Chief

Last month, I wrote about what I saw as corporate greed with Warner Brothers trying to boost its DVD sales.

A month later, it’s apparent things haven’t changed with companies, and the consumers still suffer.

As of Sunday, AT&T has doubled its upgrade fee from $18 to $36. The company told popular technology blog Engadget, “Wireless devices today are more sophisticated than ever before. And because of that, the costs associated with upgrading to a new device have increased and is reflected in our new upgrade fee. This fee isn’t unique to AT&T and this is the first time we’re changing it in nearly 10 years.”

Adding to the fishiness is the news of AT&T’s failed merger last December with T-Mobile. The Obama administration prevented the merger, and it cost AT&T $1.5 billion.

AT&T customers still using the unlimited data plan, which is no longer available to new customers, have reason to gripe as well. Some users, especially those in the top 5 percent of data consumption, have had their phones throttled to the point of making the phone nearly unusable. Newser reported one user’s phone taking two minutes to load a single Web page as opposed to its usual speed of one second.

When customers have called to complain, they have been encouraged by sales representatives to change data plans from the unlimited to one of AT&T’s current plans.

As an AT&T customer, or more importantly an advocate of decency, this makes me sick. AT&T’s upgrade fee explanation is weak, and it scares me to think of where we’re headed in a society that virtually requires cell phone usage in everyday life.

Verizon, for example, has devices just as sophisticated as AT&T’s, and yet it charges no upgrade fee once a customer has signed a contract. Sprint also charges a $36 fee for each phone upgrade. There is a $35 activation fee, but that’s a one-time payment.

Still, AT&T’s explanation to Engadget that “this fee isn’t unique to AT&T” is no excuse to gouge customers’ pockets, and it paints a gloomy picture of what the future could hold. Can companies continue to jack up fees as long as their competitors do it?

I hope the answer is no, but when I think about what the consumer can do about it, I don’t have many solutions.

Let’s face it: most of us need cell phones. We know first-hand at the Lariat how badly a news organization would get beaten on a consistent basis without cell phone communication. People on the receiving end want and expect their news up-to-the-minute, and we have yet to find a better portable option than cell phones or tablets.

The easiest response is, “If you don’t like it, find another carrier.” But the list is short in the United States; AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile dominate the market. And had the proposed merger been successful, that number would be down to three.

So what can we do? Maybe we can use the Internet as we have in the past, bombarding phone companies with emails, message board comments and blog posts every time they do something we refuse to accept. Maybe we can encourage our public figures, such as politicians or celebrities, to take a public stance against unfair prices and policies.

At this point it doesn’t matter what we do, as long as we do something. Otherwise these companies won’t learn from their poor decisions in the past, and we will pay in the future.

Chris Derrett is a senior journalism major from Katy and is the Lariat’s editor in chief.