Kirby: Cracking the code behind cell-phone bills
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

My 9-year-old grandson watched the 1982 movie "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" for the first time last week. According to him, the movie is old because it was filmed back "in the one thousands," meaning pre-Y2K.

It's still a good movie. "E.T." features a stranded space alien, secret government agencies and flying bicycles. Know what riveted my grandson's attention the most? The telephone.

Gage: "Why do they have to go inside to call someone?"

When I explained how telephones worked before the age of wireless service, he couldn't get his head around it. Why did a phone need all those wires? Why was it so big? It was ridiculous.

The kid's 9, so I don't hold his technological superiority against him. We're all hostages of the age in which we were raised. I certainly am. You will be. I don't care how on top of technology you think you are right now, the day is coming when you'll be as sharp as fudge.

When I was 9 not only were there no buttons on a phone, if you wanted to call someone in another state, you had to go through an "operator."

An operator was … well, let me see if I can offer the right perspective. A telephone operator would be similar to a website monitor. They facilitated communication, listened in and yanked the connection if you didn't behave.

Getting a phone then was complicated. You called the phone company, stayed close to the house for a few days, then waited until a service guy showed up, drilled, pounded, sawed and finally left you with a phone the size (and weight) of a generator.

Note: Later, we were thrilled with the table space-saving convenience of a wall-mounted version.

Today, I carry a phone around in my pocket. It comes with a GPS, speed dial, music, voicemail, pictures of my grandkids and a calendar.

What I don't have is any @#$% idea how to read my phone bill. This month, it was $101.55. Last month, $158.60. The month before that, $88.05.

I took the phone and the bill down to the local office of my cell provider. For purposes of objectivity here, I'll just say that the name starts with a T. I've also used services that start with S, A, V and one I forgot immediately after hurling the phone into a reservoir.

The guy at the cellphone store was about a day older than my grandson. He looked at my bill and patiently explained my options.

Apparently, I was using all my "after-plan minutes, of which I had a 129 left, in wander mode, outside of Cylon coverage, in Zone 3 with unlimited texting. I would be much better if I switched to a Z contract, which featured two extra wart-bytes of zap"— at this point he switched to either German or Chinese.

The kid, bless him, kept pointing at the monitor like I would understand. Explaining my cellphone bill was even worse.

I stopped the kid and asked him to imagine I had just been found by archaeologists. Pretend I'd been dug up a minute ago, had the dirt slapped off me and was told to come in here and buy a phone.

Me: "OK, start again."

Kid: "This one."

Note to cell companies: Don't call. I'm sure there is a perfectly simple and logical explanation for my cellphone bill — were I inclined to believe horse#%*. I'm old but I know when I'm having my pocket picked.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.