Wednesday, August 31, 2016

"Free" isn't necessarily "cheap"--or vice-versa

We are all familiar with “wonder drug” commercials on television, which purport by vague promises to relieve (but not to cure) various ailments, which are visually accompanied by a person in distress or discomfort. But within seconds we see a happy person whose life is now filled with joy due to the “wonder drug,” but this time accompanied by a lengthy narration that warns of various “minor” side-effects, anything from diarrhea to “death.” Is the manufacturer trying to ward-off potential customers, or potential lawsuits—or are they actually trying to make money? Given the high price of these “wonder drugs” and the desperation of their target groups, it is of course the latter.

On the other hand, some companies do everything they can to make you loath the day you purchased their product, yet throw in everything including the kitchen sink to persuade you otherwise when you want to leave. The “free” Internet provider Netzero is one such company. NetZero became familiar to most Americans in the 1990s when the company offered free, if limited, dial-up Internet access, paid for through online advertising that subscribers were obliged to endure.  But this did not last long, as telephone-line access gave way to broadband and Wi-Fi, which cost more. While the company continued to offer “free” service, it was more of a worm dangling from a fishing line than anything truly useful, meant to lure customers into a pay-to-play game.

Netzero still claims to be a “value-priced” Internet provider, which is open to debate. In order to get “free” service, you have to purchase a portable “hotspot” device for $129 or more,  after which “free” Internet access is limited to 200 MBs, which sounds like a lot but only gets you a couple of hours of normal web surfing a month, so it’s only really good for an occasional email check. If it isn’t enough, then you have to pay for more data until you receive your “free” 200 MBs the following month. I opted for the half-price hot-spot model that looks “cheap” compared to the model shown on the television commercials, for which I had to pay a minimum of $19.95 for 1 GB of data a month, plus a $3 “access” charge.  I was told that this was sufficient for 40 hours of email service, or ten hours of “normal” web surfacing.

Now, this may be a little hard to wrap around your mind, but one measly gigabyte really is “measly” in today’s Internet world. You can see this when you save a webpage when it tells you it is downloading 1.5 megabytes, but winds up telling you the webpage is actually only 200 KB when the download is complete. Well, where did the other 1.3 MBs go? Likely hidden away in the “Temp” folder.  And those “hidden” items tend to pile up, even though you didn’t want them in the first place. Quite often you unknowingly “save” video files embedded on a webpage you browsed; the app VideoCacheView allows you view and even play these files, and if you do a lot of web surfing, you’ll be surprised at the amount of unwanted files you’ve scooped up. You can of course delete these files, but by that time it is already too late; your gig has already been used up.

Nevertheless, I think that for $22.95, I should at least get my money’s worth. But to get enough GBs for “normal” web surfing from NetZero, you have to pay $60 or more a month—and that isn’t “free” or “cheap.” After what I consider very modest web surfing over five hours during the first week of my August allotment, I was informed that I had already used it all up; to add insult to injury, I was informed that the price of future access would rise to $24.95 in September. I decided that I was tired being ripped-off and resolved to cancel the service. First I emailed billing support, and was told I had to cancel through my account page. When I didn’t receive the email confirmation as I expected, and the account was still listed as “active,” I sent another email demanding that my cancellation be acknowledged. I was now told that cancellation of my service could only be done via phone, and I was provided with a toll-free number.

I expected the process to be done within a few minutes. I was wrong, of course; it was just another flaming hoop I had to jump through. Someone with a vaguely South Asian accent greeted me, and when I informed her of my decision to cancel the service, there was the “sorrow” in seeing me go, but before I did…I tried to stop her from what I knew was coming by insisting that I wasn’t interested in anything other than just cancelling the damn service. What didn’t I like about it? It was a rip-off, I said, now just please cancel the service. But the person at the other end proceeded to drone on, apparently reading off a prepared script for the benefit of a recalcitrant like me.  

The first dangling lure was that it will cost $20 to re-activate my hot-spot device. Actually, it sounded more like a threat; thanks for making the break easier for me. Then it was the offer of $14.95 for 500 MB. Sorry, that is even worse. Please just cancel the service. I can offer you 200 MB of free service, she said; no, No, NO I exclaimed. I just want this damned thing canceled! Then came the “trump” card: $3.95 a month for a “pay-as-you-go” plan. I admit that for a millisecond I paused on that one, but then I remembered that pay-as-you-go Compuserve back in the 90s, and I said No! Just cancel, please! Fortunately, the customer service agent had nothing more to reveal, but first she had to call someone to “confirm” the cancellation. Now what? I was put on hold for what seemed like hours, but I was determined to see this through, and finally the agent returned and informed me that my “wish” had been “granted.” Great. Thanks. Ker-plunk.

It was back to free Wi-Fi at the public library or some fast food joint. Believe me, free in these cases actually means what it says.

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