For Sale: Free Cell Phones

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-12-03

Raise your hand if you get an offer for a free mobile phone in the mail every day. Wireless service providers these days will do anything to reel you in as a customer.

Finnish telecommunications giant Nokia said last week cell phone "sales" will grow from 380 million units this year to between 420 million and 440 million next year. Sales? Theyre not "free"?

The hyperbole dripped from an offer from WorldCom Wireless last week, proving that sellers eventually get you to read offers no matter how hard you try to ignore them. When you sign up for a year, meaning you spend at least $359.88 ($29.99 x 12), you get a free phone worth $135; a waived activation fee valued at $25; a free $25 earpiece; and, best of all, 12,000 free off-peak minutes worth a whopping $4,800, WorldCom says prominently in the offer.

WorldComs giving me $4,800!? It must like me. There were more asterisks, caveats and conditions in the offer than raspberries in a pie. The WorldCom offer also says "no long distance charges**.

"**Offer applies to long-distance calls from your home calling area. Does not include directory assistance or local toll calls. Airtime charges apply. Free minutes cannot be carried over to next month."

Translation: Not free.

I dont mean to pick on WorldCom. Its a fine company doing only what all its rivals do in the dogfight to win customers. But simple, clear offers without all the fine print would be a refreshing change.

An offer from EarthLink and DirecWay for satellite Internet access could serve as a model. It lacked the exaggeration of the WorldCom offer, and all the charges seemed to be clearly marked, with few conditions and traps.

You pay $399 for the dish (on sale!) and associated equipment, $199 for installation and the "low monthly rate" of $69.95. I called EarthLink to see if the deal was as expensive as it sounded compared with cable Internet access, which costs me slightly less than half EarthLink/DirecWays monthly charge.

"This is for people who dont have access to cable," said the voice on the other end of the line.

"Why are you sending the offer to me, then?" I asked.

He didnt know but mentioned that if I paid another $105, the dish would be capable of receiving TV programming as well. But Id also have to get a separate TV receiver and monthly service from another provider.

The EarthLink offer—for me, at least—did not make economic sense. But at least I could tell right off the bat.

They send you checks, offers and free stuff. Whats next? Write to me at

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