Living Without a Cellphone
By Anton Troianovski, WSJ, Sept. 27, 2012
Waiting in the bowels of New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal recently, Nancy Kadlick was losing faith. She was supposed to meet her friend Cynthia Santoro, but as the minutes ticked by, she wondered if she was in the wrong spot.
It turned out she was. “I was upstairs, and you weren’t there!” Ms. Santoro exclaimed when they finally found each other.
The cellphone was supposed to put an end to moments like that. But the 54-year-old Ms. Kadlick, of Salem, Mass., is among the roughly 30 million American adults who don’t own one. She used to pay $65 a month, but she ended her cellphone service a few years ago, trying to cut costs.
An article published Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal about consumers spending less on dining out, clothes and entertainment but more on their phone bills drew an unexpected response from some readers: Who needs a cellphone, anyway?
For the nation’s big phone companies, people like Ms. Kadlick are extreme examples of a growing challenge: How do you keep customers on high-cost contract plans as the weak economy puts pressure on household budgets?
“I got tired of paying the phone bill,” said 24-year-old Melissa Hildebrand, of Hayward, Calif. “It’s pretty liberating.”
Ms. Hildebrand works as a home health aide. The 85-year-old woman she cares for does have a cellphone. “She yells at me, ‘Why don’t you have a cellphone?’ ” Ms. Hildebrand said.
Getting rid of her phone has meant getting reacquainted with punctuality. When she meets friends, she names a precise meeting place and time, often in nearby San Francisco. She gives them 15 to 30 minutes to show up. If they don’t, Ms. Hildebrand finds something else to do.
Overall, cellphone ownership among American adults is around 88%, according to Pew Research Center surveys. In the past two years, there were some increases in cellphone ownership among the poor and the elderly.
Subscribers don’t appear to be dumping their plans in large numbers, and wireless carriers are betting that cellphone users will spend more and more for mobile Internet service in the years ahead. But, as devices like the iPhone and the pricey data plans that typically come with them continue to spread, some consumers are looking for ways to cut back.
Low-cost prepaid cellphone plans have proven increasingly popular.
In the second quarter, the number of cellphone subscribers on contract plans rose just 0.5% from the year before, to 217 million, according to UBS AG. The number of prepaid customers grew about 11% to 74 million.
Part of the reason is people like Jim Foster, of Arlington, Mass., who owns a small building-surveying company. His business suffered amid the crunch in commercial real estate. To cut back, Mr. Foster got rid of his family’s AT&T plan and signed up with a prepaid provider called Page Plus Cellular, bringing his family’s phone bills down to $83 a month from about $150.
Mr. Foster, 45, says he uses a smartphone, but the plan offers only 100 megabytes of wireless data a month—a pittance compared with most of the plans offered by national carriers. Mr. Foster says he gets by relying on Wi-Fi hot spots around Boston and only turning on his cellular data when he needs to check his email. It takes more work, but He says he isn’t likely to go back to a costly contract plan.
On the low end of the income scale, people give up their phones—at least temporarily—when they are under financial stress. New Yorker Junior Miranda, 46, lives on an $800 monthly Social Security check and sporadic income from odd jobs cleaning stores in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Last year, he got a smartphone on a plan that cost $50 a month and enjoyed watching YouTube video clips and sending photos to his daughter.
But after his cable bill rose earlier this year, Mr. Miranda had to prioritize, so he stopped paying the phone bill.
One recent morning he was sitting on a bench in Brooklyn waiting for a cellphone store to open, hoping to sign up for a government program that subsidizes cellphones for low-income people.
Not everyone can give up their cellphone easily. Down the street, a 45-year-old woman named Carlene, who didn’t want her last name to be used, said she was on a contract plan with T-Mobile USA. She said she would love to get on a cheaper pay-as-you-go plan with MetroPCS Communications Inc.
The problem: She can’t afford the early termination fee, and she said she would likely have to wait more than a year to make the switch.