From Cell Phones to Health Care — Americans Are Rubes

Last August the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) came out with a survey showing that Americans pay way more for cell phone service than just about anyone else. To which Cactus at Angry Bear responded, sarcastically, that this means the U.S. must have the best cell phone service in the world.

I’m just now catching up to this, but I think Cactus could have taken the analogy further.

In the early 1980s, most European countries decided to adopt a uniform GSM system for cell phone service, so that any cell phone would work anywhere in those countries on the same network. Today this GSM system is the most popular standard for cell phones in the world, used by 80 percent of the world’s cell phone users in at least 100 countries.

And then there is the U.S. Our Congress didn’t want to adopt standards — that would be government regulation, you know, which is bad — so it let the free market come up with our standards. So we have a tangled mess of private and incompatible digital networks, and cell phones that don’t work anywhere but here, if then.

Providers like T-Mobile and AT&T do offer GSM service, but my understanding is that they use different frequency bands. So those phone still can’t tap into the standard GSM network that most of the world is using.

I found an article from 2005 on “Europe’s homogenous cell phone culture” that said,

Strangely, in the country that widely supported “universal” service in the early days of telephony, the United States’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided not to regulate cell standards, thus the inconsistent mix of separate systems.

Reuters cited an FCC report saying that its decision was correct since it found Americans talk more on their phones and pay less than Europeans do.

Reuters pointed out, though, that 8 of 10 people in Europe have cell phones while only 6 of 10 people in the United States do.

The difference in service is dramatic. Cell phone coverage in the United States is thin and reception chancy in apartments and, says Reuters, land lines are necessary in ranch houses in Los Angeles.

GSM works everywhere in Europe, including at the bottom of a salt mine in Poland.

It may be that those ranch houses in Los Angeles have cell phone service now, assuming they weren’t destroyed in forest fires or mud slides. California seems like a chancy place to live. But now we don’t even get the cheaper prices. This guy says, “on average, the OECD found that Americans pay $635.85 on cell phone service, compared to $131.44 per year in the Netherlands or $137.94 per year in Sweden.”

Thus it is with health care. We’ve got a Rube Goldberg health care system held together with twine and duct tape, and it hemorrhages cost, and we pay more and get less than anywhere else. And why? Because Congress wouldn’t step in and regulate it.

Yes, Congress will intervene — reluctantly — to patch up parts of the system that are utterly failing. This is how we got Medicare; millions of seniors had no health insurance and the private market wouldn’t sell it to them.

But these measures amount to band-aids that keep the ugly beast alive, so to speak. Taxpayers step in where the private system fails, and then the private system blames government interference for its failures.

Face it — we’re a nation of rubes.

Update: And other people get more paid sick days, too.

25 thoughts on “From Cell Phones to Health Care — Americans Are Rubes

  1. My AT&T GSM phone had no problem working in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy and Switzerland in 2007. Roaming charges were problematic, but the functionality was there. SMS as well as voice (and SMS charges weren’t that bad compared to voice).

  2. The big problem is the size of our country, and that we are basically 2-3 years behind Europe, and about 3-4 behind Japan. Back in the 90’s, providers in the US were just trying to provide coverage, which was much harder to do than in areas like Europe (long list of reasons,) so, we got behind.

    One of the big issues was actually government regulation and itnervention. Carriers couldn’t put up towers in optimal areas, it could take 2 years and a boatload of cash to put one up, have to deal with local, county, state, and fed regs.

    There really is a lot more I could write on the subject, as I actually work in the industy, and have since 1994. But, I try and avoid discussing my business, keep it seperate from the Interwebz world.

    We are slowly catching up, but, one of the other big problems, namely the size of our country and how spread out the usage is, slows us down. In Europe, they do not have the NIMBY problems we have, nor the regulations. Nor do they have the Internet access we do.

  3. One of the big issues was actually government regulation and intervention.

    Of course. That’s one of the one-size-fits-all excuses. I guess those countries that got ahead of us enjoy less government regulation and intervention?

  4. In Europe, they do not have the NIMBY problems we have, nor the regulations.

    I find that exceedingly hard to believe, after having lived there for a decade.

  5. Hell, why are we talking about US cell phone coverage in Europe? I have problems just where I live getting decent reception on my bloody cell phone!

  6. No, Maha, it is not a one size fits all excuses. It is called “reality.” It is one of the issues that faces providers in putting up towers. It is not as bad as it was back in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, but, it can still take 6 months to a year to get the permission to put a tower up. We have had to deal with towns that refuse to allow towers in their city limits. Government and individuals who do not like where the towers are going. What they look like. I can point to where one tower near I-40 in Cary, NC, had to be made to look like a tree. Why? Someone had a hissy.

    Just too be clear, the majority of the government issue comes from local and county gov. State and feds need lots of boxes checked, which takes time, impact studies, this approval and that approval, fill out this form, etc. It is a problem, whether you agree with it or not (and, if you disagree, sorry, in this case, you are 100% wrong.)

    You also run into the issue of whether a tower will generate money. Back in the early days, carriers just through towers up. Then, they started realizing they were money losers. But, once one was up, it had to stay up and operational. So, carriers became much more cautious, meaning coverage in the rural areas could be spotty.

    • No, Maha, it is not a one size fits all excuses. It is called “reality.”

      Your mistake is assuming that there are no government regulations or NIMBY factors in other countries. It’s no excuse for our (and Canada’s) cell phone service being so much more expensive than most of the rest of the world, and for spottier service.

  7. Falling further and further behind the rest of the developed world, while we wave our “We’re Number One” foam fingers. Pathetic.

    And our government seems intent on making sure this continues.

  8. william,

    the continental US might be roughly twice as big as the EU, but the issue isn’t how crappy the service is in “middle-of-nowhere” wyoming, it’s how bad it is in major metropolitan areas. my parents live 15 minutes from downtown DC and you can’t get service within 1/2 mile of their house. have you ever tried to use AT&T in downtown Manhattan? our wireless flat out sucks compared to the EU, in coverage, speed, everything.

    they have nimby’s in the EU, i don’t know what you mean by claiming they aren’t a problem there. i also don’t know what regulations that impede deployment you are referring to, especially since the thrust of this post is that regulation has helped deployment in the EU. and what internet access are you talking about? looks to me that a lot of EU countries have better access than we do.

  9. maha —
    I don’t pay for the ability to make/receive international calls. If I’m remembering correctly I did have to tell AT&T to activate the account, no fee for that, but roaming charges applied. I checked and SMS (text) charges were acceptable, phone charges weren’t.

    As a humorous note: I got a text in Amsterdam that Santa Cruz Animal Control had left a note about one of my chicken escaping the chicken yard. Pretty funny to get an international warning about a chicken crossing the road. The people I was hanging out with were amused by the real life joke, and a bit amazed at a geek from Silicon Valley kept chickens.

  10. This parallels the feeling I had when I was learning the metric system in grade school. Everyone else uses it but us. Our national character has some enviable traits, but their flip side is a resistance/rigidity to change that involves anything beyond looking out for Number One. As an 85 year old friend put it regarding health care reform, “so many of our countrymen are too stupid to come in out of the rain”.

  11. I just want to know how they got a cell phone to work at the bottom of a salt mine, because that is just freaky-good reception.

    Remember, USA is Number 1 as long as you don’t look at other countries.

  12. In Europe, they do not have the NIMBY problems we have, nor the regulations. Nor do they have the Internet access we do.

    Three false statements in two sentences (well, a sentence and a phrase)… a new record!

    they do not have the NIMBY problems we have
    This falls under the category of “You can’t have it both ways.” You Righties have been going on and on for decades about those super-touchy socialistic Europeans and their fear of the military bases, nuclear power plants, McDonalds, genetic research, global warming, Hadron supercolliders, you name it, that crop up in their backyards.

    nor the regulations
    There honestly is no other way to answer this than to say, Dude, you really need to remove your head from its hiding place, come up for air, and look around you once in a while. The correct statement is: “Europeans do not have the cavalier attitude about public safety or open and honest business practices that we do.” American business interests are constantly in a pissed-off state about some strict reg or other that keeps them from abusing the European marketplace in the same way they do here.

    Nor do they have the Internet access we do.
    I interact on a daily basis with private Internet users in the U.K. and on the Continent, and their Internet access is faster and more user-friendly than mine. And I live in a Midwestern American university town (and state capital).

    Once again, Teach, you win the Dan Quayle Award for “If I say untrue things often enough… they’ll become true. Or at least no one will notice.” Wrong. We notice.

  13. “GSM works everywhere in Europe, including at the bottom of a salt mine in Poland.”

    Well then, we’ll soon have the best service in the world, because with the way corporations are controlling things, that’s where we’ll all be working soon, whether anyone needs salt or not.
    I’m sure we’ll adapt to the European system soon, but only on a corporate level, to make sure that our bosses can call us to stay for unpaid overtime in the mine, then check on our productivity, and then fire us if we don’t meet our salt quota; all via the upgraded cell phone sysytem.
    Of course, if you’re a pivate customer using your personal, not your upgraded work phone, you’ll still be stuck with the digital version of two Dixie cups and a string.

    Rube Goldberg’s was a piker compared to today’s corporate American CEO’s.

    Please remember, don’t start the Revolution without me!

  14. GSM is perceived in certain quarters as a “French” standard. I don’t know if this was a factor at the dawn of the cellphone era, but it did make a difference after the US invasion of Iraq, when the US had destroyed Iraq’s GSM-based system and was handing out contracts to build a new system. Many neocons were huffing and puffing that GSM was a French standard and should not be restored – cheese-eating surrender monkeys and all that. Needless to say, one of the loudest bloviators of this talking point was a sleazy rethug congressman who had received huge amounts of cash from Qualcomm, which owns the patents on the US-only CDMA standard. The result is that Iraq’s cellphone service is a CDMA island in a GSM world, cannot be integrated with other networks in the region, and has even put the US military in danger on occasions.

  15. This is one of my favorite topics because I also see it as an example of something our government buggered up. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria for 2 years from 2004 – 2006 and bought a GSM phone there. It was the first one I had ever had, it was great, I bought a phone with a little GSM card and would just buy credits for 10, 20, or 40 leva and use it until it ran to 0, I would typically use about 20 bucks to communicate all month. No long term commitment, if I didn’t want to bother I just wouldn’t buy any credit, it was perfect. Generally speaking SMS (or text) messages were cheaper than the phone calls and from my perspective that was even better – I hate phone calls. Something no one has talked about which to me is a huge difference is the cable to recharge these phones. With Verizon every phone they give you has its own freakin charge cord, something that is nice if your like me and you always lose the darn thing… in Europe the chargers are brand wide, if you have a certain type of phone all the chargers of that phone will work with it. When I returned to Montana and asked around about cell phone coverage I was shocked to see how few choices we had – Verizon is just about it. I was further shocked when I saw the price, its 45 odd bucks for a month service with hardly any text messages. You can read more about this with this column

    The fact our systems don’t mesh is preposterously stupid. What are we a bunch of idiots who are stuck taking it from jackasses all the time? I bought airplane tickets to Florida for Christmas this evening and had an entirely unpleasant experience. You can fly anywhere in Europe for under 100 dollars, yet these airlines jack prices up for the holidays and when you change your mind ten minutes after you make a reservation they say, “that is a non-refundable ticket.” Bullshit bullshit bullshit.

    I think our government has done a totally inadequate job protecting consumers in the last few decades. Airlines get to take our money, cellphones get to take our money, gas stations/companies get to take our money, insurance companies get to take our money… and we can do very little or nothing to stop them. The fact is citizens of the European Union get a better shake at the corporations than American citizens do. I don’t feel like #1 right now…

  16. “Americans Are Rubes”

    I hear you my brother, last time in side the lets hear some music now! Music seems inside the real music alright!

  17. If we get a fair shake in prices, who’s going to pay for the outrageous CEO bonuses and for the companies to toss in a bit on healthcare?

    I don’t think our reps do a very good job for the citizens either and I am mad about it.

  18. I love how Righties go all spittle-intensive whenever anyone suggests that the government may appropriate some private land for the common good, but they actually criticize private landowners for supposedly failing to share land with private business interests seeking to make a profit. Not only is Rightie thinking facts-averse, it’s self-contradictory.

    The reality is that the U.S. has endless numbers of competing cell providers… and they’re all just different flavors of vanilla. The only difference is in their advertising campaigns. One has that guy with the glasses who says “Can you hear me now?” Another has John Cusack’s less-famous sister. Another that Welsh hottie who’s married to Michael Douglas. Still another has the yellow-haired kid who makes fun of all the other cellphone companies, and at Christmastime they do it in Claymation.

    Big deal. The “competition” is in style, but the substance is uniformly mediocre.

    And siting cellphone towers has never been a problem, either. Several years ago, between Christmas one year and Thanksgiving the next, I saw that my 200-mile drive down the I-29 corridor to Kansas City had radically changed. Every farmer, rancher, small-townie and urban commercial developer seemed to have surrendered a corner of their property for a brand-new cell tower. Suddenly I was driving through a silver forest. There wasn’t the slightest evidence of “NIMBY,” and those property owners are people who fetch the shotgun if they see you stopping by their field to change a flat tire.

  19. a) wmd, a few years ago I took a vacation in germany, ended up having to buy a brand new cell phone for the trip … as the phone I had, the bog-standard model you get for free with the contract, absolutely would not have worked there. Perhaps with the more expensive models you don’t have that problem. The issue is, you shouldn’t have to pay more for compatibility.
    b) teach, I live about 15 miles outside of Chicago, the third largest city in the nation … and I am forced to keep a land line (well, vonage, but still). We tried for a while to live with just a cell phone, but reception is so bad in my apartment that it was just not possible. This SHOULD NOT happen!
    c) teach, it’s possible that the government regulation problems you saw were a result of LACK of regulation at the APPROPRIATE level of government. Instead of federal standards that apply to all carriers, anywhere in the country, cell phone companies are forced to deal with the whims of local and county government … where you are often not gonna have the sharpest tools in the political toolshed … point being, if we had more regulation at the federal level, local and county government would have a lot less to say about whether/where/how/when towers can/should go up…


  20. Americans are much more gullible (look at belief in UFOs), much more superstitious (refer to reincarnation and astrology followings) and more likely to be misinformed (thank Fox News) than people in other industrialized countries. I routinely hear or read right-wing pundits refer to “the failure of socialism”. That would be news to people in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, who have higher standards of living, better education and health care systems and longer life expectancies than the U.S.

    We really are a bunch of ignorant, unhealthy and dysfunctional fucking rubes!

  21. I’m not so sure about the rubes title for Americans—at least in regard to cell phones..I think Americans are more of a victim of system inefficiencies as a way for corporations to milk profits from the pockets of the American public then our just being out and out rubes.

    And this be our motto: “Profit through inefficiency”… Much like the health care industry.

    But…We are rubes in some respects.. the unconditional purchase of the Iraq war, perhaps? caveat emptor, baby!

  22. Swami – the fact we live with our inefficiencies without realizing it could be better makes us rubes. And I double Sam Simples’ point: democratic socialism has not failed anywhere nearly as much as our corporate bonanza has failed.

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