Cellphone plans and new math

OK. Let’s all admit something together. We pay too much for our cellphones.

But, is this our fault? Are we just too stuck on unlimited texting or gigabytes of data? Can we simply not live without the ability to stream Netflix any time or any place we find ourselves with 30 free seconds and (gasp) nothing to do?

Well, strictly speaking, the world functioned quite well for a couple thousand years before cellphones were even invented. So, if you choose to have one, then you choose to pay what they ask; so I guess that makes it our/your fault.

But, if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find that it’s actually a vast conspiracy between cellphone companies and that new math they’ve been teaching our kids for the past couple years.

I did extensive research for this column and found that, after checking with multiple major cellphone companies offering a vast array of plans and phones, I’ll still end up paying about the same no matter what I do. How is that possible? Doesn’t that violate multiple laws of math and physics?

Well, actually, yes, it does. See, the problem lies in the basic structure of cellphone services in the United States. In most of the world, you purchase your cellphone and then shop for a plan from a variety of providers.

Since there’s no phone subsidy, things are much more transparent. They’re also far more competitive. They also use the old math where 2+2=4. Yes, I know about the metric system in Europe, but this isn’t about that.

You see, your $199 iPhone 6 actually retails for about $650. Easy there, take a deep breath now. Yes, you are carrying a $650 phone.

The way the cellphone companies make their money on this odd $451 difference, is they charge an inflated amount for service to make up the difference over the roughly two-year life of the phone.

Want to see what I mean? If you have an old cellphone lying around, go to a cellphone store with it in hand. Ask what it would cost you to activate the phone on their service with no contract. Get that number, write it down (quick, before they change it!).

Now, walk into the store the next day and ask what it would cost to get the exact same service but with a $199 iPhone. Now, pick your jaw up off the floor. Seriously.

First, you’ll be stuck in a legally binding two-year contract with early termination fees that rival a car payment. Next, even though the service is identical, it will now cost more.

But here’s the really funny math part. If you figure the difference in plans, multiply it by 24, you will not likely come up with $451. No, it’s likely to be a whole lot more. Why? How? New math!

OK, you say, they can’t beat me. I’ll go get one of those plans at a big-box store where you pay a flat monthly fee for unlimited everything. OK, give that a try. Can you get any phone you want? No? Really? Imagine that.

Can you get a family plan? Sure, just buy as many of those plans as you need. What? It now adds up to the same amount you were going to pay the big guys? Oh no, more new math!

OK, you say. I’ll get a pay as you go plan with no contract and just buy minutes and data and texts as I need them — darn, more new math!

There is one very simple solution. Skip the cellphone and see how your life goes without one. Or, if you must have one, buy a clean used phone that just gets and makes calls and maybe does texting.

Activate it on a non-contract basis at the lowest possible level and only use it as needed. Skip the data, the smart phones, the roaming NFL feed and the constant Facebook and Twitter streaming and leave that for your computer.

Of course, I hear the string-and-two-tin-cans system is making a real comeback in certain circles. But there seems to be some issue over the monthly charge for string and tin can upgrades have been a problem too.

Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg is a cellphone user who will be off contract in July; he says the math still isn’t great.