The Complicated World of Mobile

High school math problems used to debate the expected collision times of two trains that are moving towards each other at different speeds. The when and where of this seemingly unavoidable collision was guaranteed to be somewhere in the year’s final exam, causing a gnashing of teeth and a frantic chewing of pencils.   Ah, the good old days, and how easy we had it then. As core curriculums become focused on real-world problem solving, the rare issue of head-on train collisions is likely to be cast on the scrap heap. What I would propose instead is that the next generation of math problems relate to the complexities of mobile phone ownership.

Choosing a new calling plan has never been a simple issue. Moving parts include the minutes, the messaging options, and the data plan needs; each of which could have overage implications depending on the option chosen. Then you can add an exponential to the result of this calculation to address the number of family members included in the deal.

Admittedly, the share plans offered by AT&T and Verizon help solve some of this, as they include unlimited voice and data, but the math student can still be tasked with the question of which plan is a better choice: the Share Plan or the Family Plan (I’m keeping it simple by assuming that a carrier choice has already been made!). And there is no one simple answer to when the Share Plan is becomes a better option. Depending on the ages of the participants, they are unlikely to use many (any?) voice minutes, while texting and data become more important. But even with data, do they truly need the large gigabyte buckets, or is most activity on a Wi-Fi network?

Once the math student has solved the above, it’s time to weed out the merely talented from the math prodigies by considering the cost of the device in the calculation. Trade-in options mean that savvy consumers should perhaps consider the value of the new device both initially (how much you are paying for it) as well as the value two years later (how much the trade in may be worth). This can sometimes help justify a more expensive purchase now, such as an iPhone 5S, as it will hold its value better than some of the Android devices.

And, of course, just as we were all trying to work out the trade-in component, the carriers have all launched upgrade programs (Next, Edge, Jump, and One Up), which provide an alternative approach to trade-ins and allow for more frequent upgrades, but which involve paying more for the phone (close to the unsubsidized amount). 

With so many moving parts in the mobile calculation, it’s worth us stepping back to determine what exactly we are trying to calculate. How do we judge the cost of the mobile solution when there are many different ways to pay for it? It is clear that older models based simply on the monthly costs of minutes (and data) don’t truly represent the end result any more as the monthly fee now includes payment for the phone itself, depending on the plan chosen (although you could argue that the monthly plan always included the cost of the device, but that it was tucked away out of sight).

What is really needed is a Total Cost of Ownership calculation that encompasses both the initial purchase, as well as the ongoing monthly cost of service. Of course, the calculation to get to such a result is still going to involve all of the above complexity, but the result will provide a far better understanding of the true cost of mobile ownership over the period of the contract (or non-contract).

Any high school student that can truly master this all will be well equipped for any problem-solving based career (aren’t they all?) as long as it doesn’t involve a working on the railroads…