I generally avoid chiming in with the whole "AT&T Sucks" chorus. Over the last fifteen years, I've had five different wireless carriers, and though AT&T isn't the best, they are far from the worst (which was MCI/WorldCom if you were wondering). They all suck, but some suck more than others and it's not like we have much in the way of options. We're a captive audience (especially iPhone users), so just like how you pay more for food at a baseball stadium or in a theme park, I actually expect to get gouged some for having an iPhone. I don't like it, but there's no sense pissing in the wind. If I hate them too much, I always have the option of choosing another phone. I don't hate them nearly that much.
But, I got my first bill since upgrading to the 3Gs, though, and found a few surprises and a few things I didn't understand in my bill, so I called AT&T for clarification.
Now, it appears that there were no mistakes in my bill, and the customer support representative was very nice and really was trying to help me out, but I kept finding the explanations about what things were kind of vague and just not clear to me. I didn't want to be a jerk to the lady on the phone, but I just wanted a clear explanation of the "Other Charges/Deductions" line items and kept asking her to lay them out in plain english rather than reading the intentionally vague explanation from her script.
There were, for example, these things called "Regulatory Cost Recovery Fee" and "Federal Universal Service Charge", which prompted the question from me "why aren't these under the section for surcharges and taxes.
The response was that these aren't mandated fees. These aren't required by any state or federal body at all. These represent money that stays in AT&T's coffers.
So, what are they?
In a nutshell? They are amounts that AT&T, in their sole discretion, is allowed to tack on to the bill to defray the cost of certain things. The "Regulatory Cost Recovery Fee", for example, is a fee they tack on to defray the expense of complying with state and federal regulations. The "Federal Universal Service Charge" is one they tack on to help with the cost of maintaining cell towers and other infrastructure.
Now, there's no documentation about exactly what costs are being defrayed and, as far as I can tell, not much accountability to the consumer on these. Sure, there are regulations about what they can include in these items, but there doesn't seem to be a requirement that they itemize or explain the charge, or how they arrived at the amount, to the consumer. Basically, these line items can be used to arbitrarily and randomly increase their income. If you multiply those charges (over $5 for me this month) by the millions of customers, it comes out to a fairly substantial amount of money.
This irks me in the same way that "fuel surcharge" by an airline or package delivery service or an "airport recovery fee" from a rental car does. Complying with federal regulations, fuel, and leasing space in an airport are all fucking operating expenses. They should be factored into the price of the product or service, not tacked on after you've agreed to the purchase based on the artificially low price that doesn't include random operating costs. When you hide the true cost in "recovery fees" and "surcharges", you make it impossible for the consumer to know what their actual real bill will be and impossible to intelligently compare competing products or services.
Wouldn't it be nice if you could do this with your paycheck? "Hey, Boss? Yeah, the head gasket on my car blew this month, you have to pay me extra this month as an 'Employee Transportation Recovery Cost'."
So, let me just break from tradition and chime in with one big "Fuck You, AT&T" to make myself feel better. The second the iPhone is available from another carrier in the U.S., I am kicking their ass to the curb. The next carrier may not be any better, but maybe if there's a mass exodus from AT&T when the iPhone is no longer exclusive they will consider changing their ways. Not likely, but the power to take our money elsewhere is the only power a consumer really has.
And now that I've said that, let me take a step back and say that AT&T is not the real culprit here. If you give a corporation the option of tacking on an additional fee that doesn't have to be advertised in the cost of their product or service or explained to the customer, they will use it, and almost certainly at times abuse it. Corporations are soulless entities that exist for a single reason: to make a profit. Individuals are motivated by other intangible things, such as "pride in craftsmanship" and "common decency", but those things are meaningless to a large corporation.
The real problem is the incompetent and mostly unnecessary FCC, which has become little more than Big Business's bitch. It's certainly not responsive to the taxpayers, but it is responsive to the big media and communication corporations. Sure, they occasionally waste taxpayer money "guarding the airways" against anything that might offend small-minded people in middle America, but their real mandate seems to be to help big media corporations make more money at the expense of the people who pay taxes to fund them. If the FCC's regulations were really designed to help the consumer, wireless providers would be forced to have a pricing model without inherent surprises and without intentionally planned nooks and crannies specifically designed to let the carriers steal extra profit. If you made a contract with a wireless carrier for $50 a month, you'd pay $50 a month plus, maybe, sales tax.
But, rather than say "Fuck you, FCC" in my own crass way, I'll let the far more eloquent Eric Idle say it in a moderately dated, but still very funny way: