Allan's Excellent Dubyaphone Adventure

Mac Edition Radio's editor-in-chief Harris Fogel recently called me an über-geek, which status I immediately denied. If anyone around this site has the physique of a geek god, it's Harris himself. I may have achieved geezer-geek status, but only at the entry level; I still have vast holes in my tech savvy.

Case in point: I may have been the last person on earth to get a cellphone. Schoolchildren worldwide, trash scavengers in India, feral street urchins in Mexico City, subsistence farmers in Africa, Russian mafiosi, and everyone's grandmas have all had cellphones for years, even decades. All my colleagues have cellphones. My wife Anna and stepson Jacky have cellphones. Not me. Until now.

I consider the telephone itself a necessary evil, useful and even necessary in some circumstances but an intrusion into my home and my privacy. I find the idea of enabling anyone in the world to impinge on my consciousness simply by dialing the number of some device I'm supposed to carry in my pocket outrageous. The notion of paying hundreds of dollars a year for that dubious privilege offends me. The public behavior of the majority of cellphone users I find deeply embarrassing and insufferably rude; it mortifies me to associate myself with them by owning such a device. Not to mention all that research about how the radiation heats up your brain cells and such.

Of course, I have a landline, with the same number that Bell Telephone -- yes, it goes back that far -- assigned to it in 1967, when I moved into my present neighborhood. Nowadays that service comes bundled with FiOS internet and television (I don't have a TV either), through a plan from Verizon. Because it continued to function perfectly during Hurricane Sandy, when everything else went out for a week in our Staten Island home, I plan to keep it. The one handset connected to this line sits in our basement office.

I work mostly at home, so I use that landline a few times a week to make calls. I check my messages once every two days. Most of the incoming calls are sales pitches for something, even after putting myself on the national official don't-call list. I use Skype and Google+ Hangouts for audio and video chats and conferencing, plus a lot of email for written communication. The occasions on which, every year, I think a cellphone would come in useful I can count on the fingers of my two hands; none have proved life-threatening. So, since nothing's broke, I have felt no urge to fix it, and have successfully avoided any involvement with cellphones since they first came on the market.

Until now. Anna worries about me. She wants me to call if I'm coming home a bit late, or if I find myself in some kind of trouble, or just to check in if I'm out of town in road-warrior mode (infrequent nowadays, but it does happen). She wants the option of calling me -- and knowing I'll answer -- if she or Jacky needs something. She wants me, in short, to have a cellphone. And I want her to be happy.

Enter the Dubyaphone. Misnamed the Obamaphone, the recently controversial "free cellphone" actually comes out of a program that got signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008. That program, in turn, fulfilled a requirement of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which mandated the creation of the Universal Service Fund (USF) into which all telecommunications providers are required to contribute a percentage of their end-user revenues; this idea originated with the Reagan administration, in 1984.

As is their wont, said providers have typically passed those costs along to us, so most everyone with a phone, landline or cell, has a small charge tacked onto their bill earmarked for the USF. Behind all this lies the basic idea that everyone, including people with low incomes, should have access to basic phone service, which for the past several decades has meant cellular devices.

As it happens, my age and income level qualify me for a Dubyaphone. So I applied for one, through Assurance Wireless, a division of Virgin Mobile, one of several providers in what's generically known as the Lifeline program. A few days later, after my application successfully passed its review, my Dubyaphone arrived in the mail.

To put it bluntly, I wasn't impressed. Of course, technologically speaking it's an amazingly sophisticated improvement over my Lucent Technologies Slimline analog phone, but still. It's a Kyocera Domino, a CDMA phone of the type called a "candybar," with basic features (including Bluetooth), little different from the earlier Kyocera Jax. I've yet to find a positive review of it or its predecessor online; its only real advantage is its light weight (2.5 oz.). Setup proved easy enough, and it does work. But I find its maximum volume on incoming calls very low; I can't hear its loudest ringtone in any situation with ambient noise, or easily detect it in vibrate mode. Its 1.8-inch screen is minuscule; and its numbered dial pad makes even entering contact names a painfully slow process -- I can't imagine messaging with it. It also has no camera, accepts no microSD card, and requires a mini-jack headphone (which you have to purchase separately).

I don't need a cellphone with major bells and whistles, certainly nothing cutting-edge, but if I'm going to have one I want something with a robust ring for incoming calls, whose output I can hear clearly without earplugs when conversing, whose screen I can actually read without squinting, and whose keyboard is easy to use. I also want one with a still/video camera, even if an elementary one.

So I decided to trade up. I logged into my Assurance account online, going to the "Swap Phones" link, which led me to a screen at Virgin Mobile with a bunch of options. The Virgin Mobile LG Optimus Elite looked good, so I ordered one at a bargain price, from BestBuy. But, once it arrived and I charged it, the Virgin Mobile swap page wouldn't accept its MEID (the serial number). So I contacted Assurance Wireless Customer Service via email, to learn that it wasn't on their list of approved phones. Then why was it shown at the swap page of the site? Sorry 'bout that.

From Assurance CS I requested a list of approved phones for swapping, and, from that, settled on the (discontinued) LG Rumor Touch -- the only touchscreen phone listed, with a 3" screen, a full QWERTY keyboard with a separate number line, a 2.0 megapixel camera/camcorder, and other useful features. I found a reasonable deal on a new one at Amazon, returned the Optimus Elite to BestBuy, and waited for the Rumor Touch to arrive. While doing so, I emailed Assurance CS again, to confirm that the Rumor Touch would work on the plan. In response, I received an email from a different CS rep, stating that the Touch was not an approved phone. I forwarded the previous list of approved phones -- including the Touch -- to them, asking for an explanation of the discrepancy. The reply, from yet another CS rep, simply repeated that the Touch wasn't acceptable.

By then I'd done enough online research to find multiple users citing their success with the Rumor Touch on the AW plan. So, once it arrived and got charged, I went online to the Virgin Mobile swap page and plugged in its MEID. This time the system accepted the serial number, but followed it with an error message. So I called Assurance CS and got through quickly to a rep, who told me that, error message notwithstanding, I'd successfully activated the Rumor Touch, and then talked me through the steps involved in getting it ready for use. Piece of cake, basically.

I'd seen assorted cautionary tales online: Assurance Wireless had outsourced its Customer Service to Bogota, Colombia; the switchboard put you on hold for interminable stretches; reps spoke heavily accented/broken English; many of them were incompetent. Of these charges, I found evidence supporting only the last -- demonstrably, the Touch does work with the system, and the two separate reps who told me otherwise in no uncertain terms were clearly misinformed and probably badly trained, thus unhelpful. Moreover, the plan's Virgin Mobile swap page obviously has some serious problems.

With that said, Assurance Wireless's intake procedure, which requires you to submit proof that you fit the income profile, proved efficient, as did setup of the initial Kyocera phone (which I'll keep as a backup unit). The phone-swap protocol sorely needs review and improvement, but it does function. And, at the end of that process, at the cost of $68 for my Rumor Touch, I have a cellphone that's right for me, running on a plan that gives me 250 free minutes and 250 free text messages per month. Given my sparing use of my landline, I can't imagine needing more, but, if I do, I can double those allowances for a mere $5 monthly.

So thanks, Dubya. As for the Obama-haters out there, if you begrudge me this phone, at least blame the right president for making it available to me.

A.D. Coleman, Posted 7/31/13

[Postscript: After two months of having my Assurance service, and using it now and then, I received a voicemail notification to the effect that unless I made more frequent use of it they'd close my account. Use it or lose it, in other words. When I called Assurance tech support for details, a gentleman who did indeed sound as if he worked from Bogota told me he couldn't give me any specific minimum usage I needed to reach or exceed. "Just use your phone more often, sir," he advised.

My wife Anna suggested an easy fix: Call our landline from the Dubyaphone, answer the ring, then leave the line open and the phone off the hook for half an hour at a clip. Which I did the next morning, and will do weekly from now on. I've also started to add contacts, and will progressively move my still-minimal phone activity to the Dubyaphone. Perhaps I'll eventually wean myself entirely from the landline, as so many have done. By then they'lll have shrunk cellphones so much that subcutaneous implanting will make sense. And that'll get covered by Obamacare.]

A.D. Coleman, Posted 10/16/13

For more information on Assurance Wireless, visit:

For more information on the Kyocera Domino, visit:

For more information on the LG Rumor Touch, visit:

© Copyright 2013 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services,