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I find it helpful to look for the profit motives behind what happens in our shopping life.
Why does it feel like every other commercial you see on TV or online is a phone company that says “5G! 5G! 5G! "In your ears? Because for companies like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, every wireless technology transition in a decade is an opportunity to top up our cell phone bills without us going crazy and stealing customers from each other."
This isn't necessarily bad for us, but it does mean that the next time you buy a new phone or stare at a marketing message from a phone company, you should be careful of your wallet. You want to make sure that you are making a purchase that is good for you and not just for the bottom line of the phone company.
I wrote last week that America’s phone companies are beating the current capabilities of 5G, the next generation of wireless technology. My colleague Brian X. Chen has elaborated on how the reality of 5G coverage differs from the hype: Most of what exists now is not a huge step up.
Yes, 5G will eventually make our phones faster and usher in new technologies that we couldn't have imagined. Just not now. This means you don't necessarily need it right now.
(Non-US readers: This advice may not apply to you. Some other countries' 5G networks are farther away or less cluttered. I'll be discussing places where 5G works well in an upcoming newsletter.)
But right now is a very real opportunity for phone companies. Americans buying new, 5G-enabled smartphones – like the latest iPhone models – are often referred to the phone companies' more expensive service plans.
These plans – including those with "unlimited" Internet data usage – are great for many households, but expensive and inflexible for others. (It is more accurate to refer to them as "unlimited" with the air offers as they do not exactly allow unlimited use of phone data.)
To be fair, the phone companies are spending a fortune upgrading the country's wireless networks to 5G. And it's understandable that they're trying to recoup their costs.
But that's not the only thing that's happening here. What Americans are paying for their smartphone service plans hasn't changed in a while, and the phone companies are trying to reverse that by giving us a reason to pay more.
The most important factors in a phone company that makes money from smartphone service are that customers stay with the company for a long time and pay more every month. The move to 5G is an attempt to do both.
The telephone companies' profit motives can help us get good business. But I find it helpful to repeat a line from Brian in a column last year. "Telecommunications is one of the most lucrative industries in the world and wireless operators are sure to make a profit," he wrote. "You can't beat the house."
Your head start
Read this before you buy a new smartphone
In last week's newsletter on why 5G is still the box in the US, some readers asked: If they are definitely buying a new smartphone, should they go for one that can run on 5G cellular networks? (Phones must have special parts in order to connect to 5G phone networks, so older phones cannot receive a 5G phone.)
Short answer: even if you get a new smartphone now, it probably makes sense to choose a slightly older model that doesn't support 5G. Save your money. Instead, buy more cookies.
One of the questions came from Elizabeth Schultz of Manchester, New Jersey. She has a seven-year-old iPhone and is discussing buying a new iPhone SE for $ 400 or one of the recently released iPhone 12 models for $ 700 and up.
The iPhone SE is unable to connect to 5G cellular networks, and Elizabeth fears that if she chooses this, AT&T, her current phone company, could make 4G networks obsolete in a few years time.
Rob Pegoraro, who writes on cell phone service for the New York Times product review site, Wirecutter, addressed this question:
Between the iPhone 12 mini and the iPhone SE, I would go with the SE. AT&T barely has the ultra-fast 5G type known as the "millimeter wave," and you get little or no speed advantage with the current 5G from AT&T in your area based on the coverage map. And I can't imagine a scenario where AT&T will shut down 4G service during the life of a smartphone purchased today. Current phones with 5G parts also tend to be bigger and drain the phone's battery more than many people expect.
My other suggestion is to consider changing your cell phone plan. Since the last time you bought a smartphone, the service from the major providers has generally become much cheaper. However, you cannot rely on companies to tell you that you are paying too much.
Before we go …
My colleagues were busy with bees on Google and antitrust law! In an interview with our reporter Cecilia Kang, the leading government attorney in the case against Google, when AT&T was torn apart in an antitrust litigation in the 1980s, said "consumers are much better off". I'm sure he didn't make any analogy to Google at all, no!
Steve Lohr spoke to legal experts who suggested creating a specialized government agency to police large US tech companies, much like the Federal Aviation Administration is a watchdog for airlines.
Adam Satariano and David McCabe write that an unlikely and well-funded collection of professional tech skeptics who have called for more aggressive application of US antitrust laws paved the way for the Google lawsuit.
Greg Bensinger, a member of the New York Times editorial office, wrote that the government case against Google is "too narrow and long to dethrone the company." The final word goes to the ex-Google executive who told the Wall Street Journal that applying antitrust laws to regulate companies like Google was bad policy.
The deeper meaning of a vote on contract labor: A California poll on whether Uber and other app companies should list workers as employees is "just the beginning" of a national debate on regulating gig work, my colleague Kate Conger said in our California Today newsletter.
How to Take Better Pictures of Your Pets: Try a sheet of paper as a background, be patient, and consider a shutter timer. Here are more tips from my colleague J.D. Biersdorfer.
"Dogo Argentino" is not the stupid name of a fictional pet detective, but a real and adorable breed of dog that will compete in the Westminster Dog Show.
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