A Rant

Sun, 06 Apr 2008 18:40:56 +0000

Arica Index Mat's day off

Today I received a phone call from HSBC. As a result, I have bought a digital watch.

After sending several long, rude emails to T-Mobile, I finally have credit on my phone. They eventually just added EUR 30 of credit (double what I actually asked for) to my account and charged it to my debit card. I was thus the proud owner of EUR 30.17 worth of mobile phone credit.

Then HSBC phoned me about... something. I was in the street at the time, and it was way too noisy to hear what they wanted to talk to me about. I bellowed that they should phone me later, and they agreed to do that. The entire call lasted at most 20 seconds. Checking my balance, how much do I have left? EUR 28.38. They charged me almost two euros to receive that utterly pointless phone call.

This is beyond ridiculous. I can't be bleeding cash like that every time someone tries to phone me. It happened in Brasil too, when someone from Deutsche Bank phoned to try and sell me something. When I explained that this was costing me a fortune, the lady actually thought Deutsche Bank was paying the entire cost. Ha!

There is no point in carrying a mobile phone around with me all the time. Call centres are ubiquitous all over the world, from Switzerland to Swaziland. They use IP telephony to drive the price down. I spent five minutes in Puno talking to HSBC in the UK for about a euro, in my own booth away from the street noise. In most places in Peru, every street corner has someone with a mobile phone offering the same service: their continual call of "Llamadas!" is going to be one of my strongest memories of that country. I'm at the stage where I feel nervous every time I touch my mobile that I'm about to be ripped off. I'm now more likely to trust a random hustler with no English I met on the street than a respected German multinational.

Mobile phone companies are going to get their asses handed to them if they don't fix this. International travellers like myself won't put up with it. They will demand some kind of mobile internet connection so that they can use Skype, and whether it's wifi, wimax, or something else, they'll get it. Once that infrastructure is in place, and prices are down in the basement, suddenly belonging to the GSM network at all will seem completely pointless for everyone, not just for people in my unusual situation.

This will cost the mobile phone companies billions, but it will cost the rest of us more. It will be nothing less than a format war for the telephone network. For a period of years, some of us will have phone numbers and some of us will have Skype accounts. If it's hard keeping track of people's separate work, home and mobile numbers now, it'll be worse once there are five major IP telephony systems all trying to tear down the established carriers and each other. The infrastructure will never quite have enough coverage, calls will keep dropping and the quality will be atrocious. People will miss meetings, lose contact details, and be unable to get help when they need it. It will cost trillions of dollars, not to mention actual human lives. And it's completely pointless. The existing mobile infrastructure is the best solution to the problem, but the gatekeepers are too proud to let us use it for a reasonable price.

In the meantime, my mobile is now switched off and shoved into the very bottom of my backpack. I'll keep it, just in case of a genuine bleeding-to-death emergency (provided the emergency happens within reach of my backpack). But if I've given you my phone number and told you to use it to contact me when I'm travelling, throw it away. It won't work.

The only remaining use I had for my mobile was as an alarm clock. I have therefore now bought a digital watch. It's ugly as hell, and at 3000 Chilean pesos I was mercilessly overcharged, but I was too pissed off to haggle. I'm now having to get used again to the feeling of having a piece of technology permanently clamped to my wrist, an indignity I haven't suffered since I first held my nose and plunged into the mobile revolution in 2000. But it has an alarm, it has a light to tell the time in the dark, and it's way way smaller than the smallest mobile phone. I can even use it in the shower. And it never needs recharging.

Somewhere along the line, mobile phone technology has driven itself right off the rails. It's going to need a hefty kick to get it back on track.

Arica Index Mat's day off