I Upgraded My Cell Phone

Cell phone upgrades happen at the crossroads of funeral planning and new car buying.

I Upgraded My Cell Phone

I upgraded my phone this weekend. We, my lovely wife Velveeta and I upgraded our phones. We’re not cutting-edge people, but our old phones had just about had it. They were iphones that had been debuted during the Eisenhower administration by a toddler named Steve Jobs. Diesel powered, they were heavy and could no longer pass the emissions test. We were cutting our fingers on the spider web cracked screens, broken forever-ago by repeated drops, or flings across the room when any Supreme Court decision was handed down. The children could no longer play their favorite electronic games, they were “not supported.” They cried and suggested that they would no longer come visit us if they could not reach level 4 of Happy-Fun-Time-Sensory-Overload-Game. It was for this reason alone that I was willing to try and eek a few more months of life out of the things, but sweet Velveeta did not want the darlings to miss out getting to level 4 on Happy-Fun-Time-Sensory-Overload.

We  knew we had to face the hard fact. Our smart phones simply were out of smart. We could no longer deny the electronic dementia that was setting in. You could ask them questions, and little graphic wheels would just spin and spin. They required constant charging and recharging. If we took them out, external batteries were needed, attached in a manner that resembled an IV bottle or Oxygen canister.

Our youngest (adult) son’s last tether to mom and dad’s purse strings is the cell phone subsidy that he gets by being on our family plan. True, if we’d done a better family plan twenty-something years ago, this would not be an issue today.

But I digress….

The boy had recently told me that he had upgraded his phone to a brand-new sparkle phone complete with everything he would ever need to live a happy life. “The upgrade was free, dad. They had a special, and then they did a trade-in, and then there was a coupon that she had that for a service upgrade.” Um, ya sure? “Oh yeah, dad. I got the brand new Sparkle Pony 14 with 5G and 2 terajigs of RAM. And don’t worry, dad. It’s free!”

This, from the recent UT grad, who degreed in economics.

And a week later, I got my cell phone bill and it was $25 a month higher than the month before. “Free,” being relative. My relative.

We went to the cell phone service store (not mentioned by name here but it rhymes with horizon and it starts with a V.) Our hearts were heavy as we contemplated putting down our two loyal companion phones. Oh how loyal they had been. All the birthdays they had remembered, all the arguments put to rest. They required so little from us… a charging device with twenty adapters, a loving swipe every now and then as if to say, “who’s a good phone? You’re a good phone!” And a monthly “plan” that cost about as much as my first house payment. (“But you get unlimited texts!”)

After strolling around the room trying not to look at the new phones waiting to be adopted, a woman came over and softly asked what we might need today? I told her that we weren’t sure if we were ready to let go, but we wanted to see our “options” if we were to upgrade. She nodded, and gave us a sympathetic, compassionate smile. She motioned us to follow her, and she seated us at a small table and began to lay out various printed material showing various “plans.”

With a delicate approach usually reserved for planning a loved one’s funeral, she reassured us that we would be ‘doing the right thing’ if we gave up on our two dying cell phones. She talked about losing her Android not too long ago, “it was too soon” she said, but she explained that they had a recycling program. “Imagine, my sweet phone has given its life to so many other phones through our recycling plan.”

Velveeta and I were squeezing each other hands by then, looking down at our old, graying phones. We knew that we had to say goodbye. Still not ready to put them down, I thought that – without committing to something new and different – I’d ask about which new phones were popular these days.

In hindsight, I realize that I had tipped my hand. The ground started to shift. The sales associate slowly began to highlight those “plans” that were on the desk. Out of nowhere, several new phone models were in front of us. We were taken from the atmosphere of funeral planning for the deceased, suddenly we were in the car dealer’s showroom where everything was in stock and priced to move.

The sales associate lost no time. What were we looking for in a phone? (huh? How about that little guy there? Or the biggie one?)

Her spiel continued. You know that they don’t use your fingerprints; they recognize your face now. Without judgment. Look at all the colors they come in, a wonderful new palette for the new 2022 models. And dozens of covers, wallets, and protective cases available as accessories. Oh, and chargers are extra, nowadays. But how about that new camera with ultra-wide lenses with or without a telephoto option? And check out that new A-15 bionic chip (seriously, I can’t make that up.)  You want the SE? The Pro? The Pro-Max? How about 5G or Superfast 5G? How many GPU cores would you like today? And that’s not glass, it’s ceramic… so…

The first mobile phone was developed in 1973 by Martin Cooper, one of the engineers of Motorola. Cost? around $4,000. Battery life? Less than 30 mins of talk time. Cooper said in an interview in 2015 that the DynaTAC 8000x was inspired by comic book hero Dick Tracy's wristwatch phone. 

I began to long for those original 50 lb Motorola phones that had about ten minutes of battery time and were limited to actual phone calls. “Plans” started at over 50¢ a minute for talk. No texts, no apps, no googlemaps. Maybe a $10 a month pager to go with it. We were content to answer our pagers by lifting that brick which was emitting God-knows-what kind of radiation up through our heads and talk for all of five minutes or however long the battery lasted.

Nevermind. Sorry. I kind of lost it there for a second. (“And we were HAPPIER without all this so-called air-conditioning…We LIKED outdoor plumbing...)

I digress.

We picked colors. I thought that a medium Sparkle-Pony 14, or maybe the 14.5 Sparkle-Pony-Max-Lite – in basic black. Velveeta liked the baby-blue Mini-Sparkle-Pony but with only two lenses, and no onions and could she get the dressing on the side? How much would all that cost?

Our rep nodded approvingly, and said that she would be right back, she would need to check on and then write up this “deal.” And off she went. This was becoming even more reminiscent of “let me go talk to my manager and see what I can do” car dealer dealings. She would return with a computer printout of our make, model, engine, powertrain, and accessories. It was our turn to nod approvingly, not knowing what else to do.

Could we just pay for the phones and move on? Oh no… they don’t sell the phones that way. It goes to your monthly, because of course it does. We all love monthlies. Who doesn’t love another monthly?

“How much?” I wondered, not really understanding the opaque prices that were on the sheet.

“Do you want to continue on your plan?”

It was back to our plan.


“Because allowing for your trade-in, you could get a better experience if you bumped up to the Ultra-Wideband 5G, I think you’re on a Family Plan discount, and it looks like… (she punches some numbers on her iPhone calculator) you would probably come out ahead, AND get free Disney+ or Google PlayPad Or… say, do you have our home internet plan?”

And so we were crossing our eyes at “plans.” And trade-in value. Intro streaming deals. More Ultra 5Gs than just 5 of 5Gs. (I never had anything against 4G, and I still get misty eyed thinking about 2 and 3G. Honestly, my little G indicator usually just said “Lte,” like my beer cans.

The 5G Spot. Allegedly.

Finally, in exasperation, with the whole plan-map in front of us, I told her that I just didn’t know much about this new-fangled G spot. Velveeta nodded a little too enthusiastically.

Between the 5G GetMore, 5G PlayMore, 5G DoMore, and 5G Start… which G to choose? You know, to get that Ultra-wideband, premium, unlimited, double-cool, enhanced-glitter, Sparkle-Pony-Max Total Access package?

"Get, Play, Do." The "Eat, Pray, Love" inspiration of the tech world. 

She’d be right back.

I looked around, and other customers were in different stages of their cell plan grief. It was the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross five stages of cell phone buying. One woman was quietly weeping into her hands as a sales rep kept soothing her, “there, there… there… there.” One man was looking at a store associate in a sort of thousand-yard-stare and repeating, “I just want to go home. I just want to go home…” Another woman was shaking as she was being cell-splained that she should have known to back that phone data up.

Our rep came back from the manager’s office with a real honey of a deal. Great plan, sweet bennies, good accessories package, premium tires. So… how much?

She showed us the new phone cost to be amortized over two years. There was a trade-in allowance to be amortized over the same two-year period. There was a new plan charge, and, God help me I have no idea what the real cost is. There was an auto-pay and paperless billing discount. And then we can’t forget the Fed Universal Service charge, the Regulatory charge, the Admin and Telco Recovery charge, the Texas Margin Surcharge, (you think I’m making these up?) the Texas Universal Service charge, the Texas 911 Fee, the Texas Equalization Surcharge, (I assure you, I’m not making these up,) the Texas State Sales Tax Telco charge, and the Houston City Sales Tax-Telco charge. There were some non-specific “one-time charges” added. (Who am I to question those?)

By now, the cost didn’t matter. I wanted out of there, I was feeling trapped in a cell-asylum. I knew I’d get a bill, and realize I could have bought a full-sized SUV for the new monthly I just signed up for.  

So go ahead. Upgrade. Just be aware that “free” is so much more expensive than it used to be.

Chris Newlin worked around Tee-Vee stations before he went out on his own and continued to work in the world of video and multi-media production. Then came iPhones and YouTube accounts, so now he sits around full of self-pity and too many Keystone Lights. He still enjoys sunsets, long walks on the beach, and a good bowel movement, at least every now and then.