The dark times of early phone carriers; and appreciating T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T and the rest today


We’ve come a long way. As smartphones evolved from monochrome plastic bricks in the late 90s, into these incredible, all-in-one, thinner bricks we have today, so did phone carriers.

Using a cellphone in the late 90s and early 2000s was kind of scary, as much as rousing. “I can go outside and still talk to people who aren’t near me? Wow!”

It sounds like caveman times, being amazed by something so taken for granted nowadays, but not so long ago (or perhaps pretty long ago, and I just don’t want to admit it) – this was exciting.

The phones, in general, were exciting to use. No color, no touch screens, no internet, no music, just screeching monophonic beeps, yet still so full of character. Every cellphone had its own identity, and its own learning curve. Its own upsides and drawbacks.

Sure, it couldn’t do everything, like smartphones today, but my cellphone had two whole games! And allowed me to make little avatars for different callers, and compose my own monophonic melodies!

That’s about when I first realized having less options makes you appreciate them far more. Having literally all the options, like we do today, actually results in people bored with their phones, doesn’t it?

Anyway, so the phones were cool. But back in those bygone times, in order to get one in the first place, you (picture yourself as a 13-year-old, as I was) had to walk into this imposing place called a cellular store, with a parent.

A place where adult employees dressed in dapper suits (according to your teenage judgment) were trying really hard to push everyone who walked in into the worst possible contract.

“Oh, your kid wants a phone? Well, you’re an adult who’s new to this technology and don’t understand it, just like your kid, and neither of you are a lawyer either, so naturally – here’s a 50-page contract for you to sign. Sure, it complicatedly says that you’ll be paying us monthly for many years, and it renews automatically, and I’ll get a bonus if you sign it. We won’t actually explain any of that to you, just a carefully-rehearsed selling pitch that conveniently hides additional costs, that whole renewal thing, and the fact we have cheaper deals. Enjoy your new phone, kid!”

Understandably, parents weren’t too keen on signing such contracts, and yeah – I quickly and consistently started feeling personally screwed over by each new carrier I got a phone from.

So let’s have a nostalgic trip about it! I won’t mention any phone carriers by name, but that shouldn’t matter much, since, to my knowledge, most, if not all phone carriers had scummy practices like the ones I’ll bring up.

I’m sure you also have your early-day phone carrier stories, so feel free to share them in the comments section below!

Early 2000s: Carrying a Siemens A50 brick, and getting chased by collectors to pay carrier bills made out of thin air

Ah, my Siemens A50. I’m not a thousand percent sure, but to the best of my memory, this was my first phone ever. Everyone always gloats about the legendary Nokia 3310, but this… this was my Nokia 3310… I loved it.

Two games – Stack Attack and Balloon Shooter! That’s all I cared about at age 13. I had something to play at school, in between classes – a puzzle Tetris-like game, and the most basic shooter ever made. Portable gaming wasn’t a thing on my radar at that time, so this was my GameBoy. And, lest we forget – phone.

Who needs colors when you have imagination? Who needs the internet when you have SMS? Who needs emoji when you have :-)?

Who needs a touch keyboard when you have a dial that doubles as a physical one, each button stroke resulting in a different letter; T9 typing.

So I was happy. I had my brick phone, and I had my bootleg iPod mp3 player. What else could I ask for?

Well, except maybe for not getting chased by a seemingly random phone carrier years later, because evidently I owed them money.

See, the initial carrier I signed up with when I got the phone got bought out by another carrier at some point, and that new company claimed I still owed money from my long-gone contract with the previous one. Fun!

To this day neither me nor my parents can explain where those bills came from, considering I had paid everything and closed my contract years prior. The employees never mentioned I had any outstanding payments, or any open contracts. Fantastic, right?

Funny how when a collection agency starts chasing you for bills neither they nor you can prove you owe, you still pay them, because it’s a big phone carrier that’s asking. Here’s hoping those days are long gone, yeah?

I know for a fact that the phone carrier in question no longer exists, and was sued for doing this to many other clients also, which is how a scam normally falls apart – by shamelessly, and very publicly overdoing it.

But anyway, let’s move ahead in time…

2010: My Sony Walkman phone, and the insane internet and roaming prices

The cell phone world was progressing rapidly. Phones were now actually smartphones, although the name hadn’t caught on yet. All of the sudden, they could play real songs, and even more impressively – videos. Whole movies, you could painstakingly compress and transfer to a cell phone and watch on a color screen now!And I did, with my then-new Sony Ericsson Zylo phone, also known as a Sony Walkman phone. I had all my favorite music, a few TV shows, and even some primitive 3D games at the palm of my hand now. Things like color screens and downloading new apps and games were becoming less exciting, and more of a given.

Around that time I started traveling internationally, and got to experience going over my overpriced cellular internet cap.

See, I thought reaching it would just stop my internet, but instead – my monthly cost for it just “conveniently” continued adding up. Every measly megabyte of internet usage was extremely expensive, so the resulting bill was quite an unexpected surprise, along with how similarly high roaming costs were back then.

To be fair, at this point I was reasonable enough to blame myself for not being better informed, but still felt like how this worked should’ve been conveyed to me. In literally any way. A little message to tell me my cellular internet cap was reached would’ve been nice, but alas.

I really appreciate having unlimited 5G internet for next to nothing nowadays, is my main takeaway from that. Because the unexpected bills I had to pay back then, for comically minimal cellular internet usage, were quite the frightening numbers.

2012: Rocking a Nokia Lumia Windows Phone, and realizing I was SIM-locked to a country I don’t live in

If I remember correctly, the Nokia Lumia 510 was my first smartphone. A Windows Phone; remember those?

The reason I stepped over Android and iPhone and got me a Lumia was pretty simple – I loved its interface, and I happened to be in London during a promotional Nokia Lumia music event. Good marketing works! When you’re a young adult, at least.

And boy did I love my cheap Nokia Lumia. Small screen, barely any apps, but a beautiful interface, a decent camera, a web browser, and perhaps most exciting – Cortana, a virtual assistant. My first one.

I would walk around with my cabled headphones plugged into the phone’s headphone jack (good times!) and occasionally ask the little AI person inside to call my dad, or play a song, or write a text message, and it worked.

Back in those days, this was extremely impressive to me. Nowadays we’re used to ChatGPT and will take even it for granted by the end of the year, seeing as how every company, notably Google and Apple, is racing to deliver a similar first-party experience to their devices. But back then – saying words, and being understood by your phone, truly felt magical.

My love for Nokia Lumia aside, I got the phone while traveling around the UK, from a local carrier, which I also won’t name, because they didn’t even do anything wrong or unusual. I was just uninformed. I needed a cheap phone fast, so I got that one – the Lumia 510.

Didn’t realize the phone was locked to that carrier, in that country alone. So when I got back home, and tried to use a local SIM card – surprise – can’t.

And I actually went through all kinds of hoops to try and get my phone unlocked, from both the carrier, and local phone repair shops, but there was always a crutch. I couldn’t have the carrier unlock the phone, because I was in another country now, and those third party options seemed… scammy.

To this day, I have that locked Nokia Lumia. It still works, it still (super slowly, and only in theory) gets on the web. It can’t actually load almost any modern website. It can’t download any new apps. Can’t even easily connect to my PC so I can transfer some files to it, because… Microsoft…

So it’s just a relic that I keep around, remembering the good old Nokia Lumia days, which I also happen to associate with SIM locking, for obvious reasons.

I may have lost, sold or broken all of my other many phones I didn’t mention during this trip down memory lane, but my Nokia Lumia 510 is still alive and well, I’m guessing somewhere damp, at my parents’ house.

Current day: iPhone 15, Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5, and no carrier worries

So yeah, phone carriers have come a long way. No longer the scary corporations you need a lawyer to accompany you when dealing with them.

Thanks to increased and improved regulations, and hopefully common courtesy, we get pretty reasonable and cohesive contracts nowadays, and pretty great deals on phones.

5G cellular internet barely costs anything now, and things like SIM unlocking, switching your carrier, requesting a new SIM card, canceling a contract early – all a nightmare once – are super easy and convenient now.

SIM cards on their own are becoming a thing of the past, with eSIM, so – even more simplifications.

I legitimately don’t have complaints with the phone carriers I’ve used in the past few years.

I’m currently rocking both a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5 and an iPhone 15 Plus, both expensive phones, but both pretty manageable to get thanks to carrier deals.

Speaking of carriers and their redemption arc, carrier deals in particular are now better than ever. Even the most expensive phones are within reach for anyone, thanks to the option of getting them via manageable monthly payments.

So if you’re interested in buying a new phone, check out:

Also – do you have any notable past or current experiences with phone carriers that you’d like to tell us about? Share them with your fellow tech enthusiasts in the comments section below!

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