Outsmarting Verizon

June 28, 2013

About three years ago, I signed up for a Verizon contract cell phone plan.  In exchange for paying a fairly steep monthly rate, and committing myself to paying that rate for about two years, I received a free Android phone.  My plan included unlimited data (3G was state of the art at the time), and an ample allowance of talk minutes and text messages.  At the end of the two years, I could renew my commitment and get a new free or subsidized phone, or I could continue with my old phone as a month-to-month customer at the same monthly rate.

I.

Somewhere along the line, things changed.  Verizon started rolling out 4G LTE service, which was much faster and which, I assumed, stimulated data use for streaming videos and music, since it could do so without the problems one encounters at slower data speeds.  In response, Verizon decided that any customer desiring a free or subsidized phone would have to go on a limited data plan.

While I could understand this response, I felt it was a little unfair to ask a customer who has paid off her or his phone under a two year contract to keep paying the same monthly fee for service and not get anything in return, except the ability to cease being a Verizon customer without penalty.  I therefore set out to find a way to upgrade my phone to a 4G capable model and keep my unlimited data plan.  When I went to my Verizon store, I was offered the option of buying a new, unsubsidized phone, but the $500 and up for a new phone was far more than I wanted to spend.  Instead, I bought a refurbished phone on eBay for about $80, including tax.  It’s not the latest model, but it’s years ahead of what I had and seems to be performing very well.

Getting the phone to work required a trip to my Verizon store to have a sim card installed and my account transferred to the new device.  The process took about 15 minutes and I was not charged for the “device switch.”  Incidentally, I mistakenly assumed that because my new phone required a sim card that it was GSM capable (i.e., capable of being used, with roaming, in most of the rest of the world).  That turned out not to be the case — all 4G phones require a sim card, and most, like mine, are not GSM capable.  If roaming abroad is important to you, and you are a Verizon customer, you have limited choices, and you should check on the web site or with customer service before you buy a phone.

II.

While traveling, I’ve often found that hotels (usually, ironically, the more expensive ones) do not offer free wi-fi.  While one can pay Verizon an additional $20 per month to turn one’s phone into a wireless hot spot, I chose not to do so, believing that if I want to use my data on another device, I should not have to pay twice for the privilege.  Two programs, PdaNet and FoxFi, provide a great solution to this problem.  They can turn a supported phone into a wi-fi hot spot (with password security if desired).  The basic program is free, but it maintains a connection for a limited time.  For a small, one-time fee, the program can be unlocked to provide a continuous connection for as long as one desires.  My old phone supported FoxFi, but my new one does not.  Fortunately, PdaNet can provide internet access to my tablet and laptop through Bluetooth, which is good enough for me.  Information on supported phone types and various products offered is available on www.junefabrics.com.  A list of supported Android phones is available at http://pdanet.co/help/devices.php.  I have heard that Verizon and other carriers are looking for ways to block or otherwise defeat these kinds of free tethering programs, so there is no guarantee they will continue to work.  However, for less than the price of a day’s wi-fi access at most hotels, you can support a pro-consumer company and enjoy the internet access you pay for on other devices.

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An open letter to Christopher Kay

June 19, 2013

Dear Mr. Kay:

Congratulations on your appointment as President and CEO of NYRA.  I wish you the best as you face the daunting challenges ahead.

Like most horse racing fans, I have been disappointed with the direction in which NYRA has been heading in recent years.  While NYRA implicitly acknowledges the importance of the owners, trainers, jockeys and others who “put on the show,” those of us who finance the show feel we have been neglected and at times — such as when NYRA illegally overcharged us on certain bets, to name but one — abused.  While VLT revenues have been used to inflate purses to wholly unrealistic levels, especially for low level claiming races and races restricted to New York breds, I am not aware of any meaningful portion of that money being directed to fans and bettors in the form of decreased takeout or reducing the costs of admission, programs, food or other fan amenities.  I also am not aware of any meaningful expenditures to retain the existing (and declining) fan base, or to develop the new fans needed to sustain racing in the future.  One need only to look at your closest competitors, the casinos, to see why customers have fled racing in droves:  those establishments excel at customer service,  make their customers feel valued by not nickeling and diming them with admission and other charges, and by rebating meaningful amounts of money wagered to  even low rollers in the form of free meals and other comps.

You may think it unimportant to cultivate fans as long as you are receiving a portion of VLT revenues; I submit such a view would be short sighted.  First, casino gambling revenues are declining in most jurisdictions, due to saturation of the market.  If the constitutional amendment allowing “real” casino gambling in New York passes, VLT revenues will be, to say the least, negatively affected. In the shorter run, there already have been suggestions that the State will wake up and take the VLT monies used to subsidize racing to use for other purposes, especially if it perceives — correctly, in my view — that these monies are not being used to assure the long term self sufficiency of the sport.

If you decide, as I strongly suggest you should, to make one of the major goals of your tenure the retention of existing fans and the cultivation of new fans, you then have another major decision to make — whether your future fans will attend the races live, or watch and wager off site.  Other than on Belmont day and at Saratoga, I might suggest that the fans already have decided to stay away in droves.  Twice in the last year or so, I have been to Belmont on a Saturday, and I was joined by far fewer than 10,000 others.  Vast expanses of the facility were closed, and it resembled a ghost town.  If the future of horse racing is off-track, it might make sense to begin an ordered shrinking or decommissioning of the little-used facilities at Belmont and, certainly, Aqueduct.  Year round racing may serve the needs of horsemen, but does it serve the needs of NYRA?

Off track or on, the most significant thing you can do to retain existing, regular bettors is to work to reduce the takeout which, along with  breakage, has made it virtually impossible for regular players to afford to stay in the game.  Do not buy the plea of  the politicians that “no one will notice another one per cent.”  That thinking has brought racing, and, in the context of taxation of businesses and individuals, New York, to its knees.  And please don’t tell me that the NYRA One rebates to large players reduce the effective take out.  While that program is a start, most of us cannot afford to bet anywhere near enough to qualify for those rebates.  If you can’t reduce the take out, throw players a bone or two:  how about free admission upon presentation of a NYRA One card, or the elimination of breakage on payouts into the NYRA one account.  Bettors who wager a certain amount over a year would be delighted to receive tickets to a pair of club house seats at Belmont or Saratoga.  I know that race books in Las Vegas provide significant comps to horse bettors; you could creatively offer a small portion of what they do.

The quality of racing also needs to be addressed.  Racing in New York has been dominated by races for New York bred horses, who race in a parallel universe where the purses are the same for comparable races for open company, but the quality is many, many levels lower — so much lower, significantly, that the horses do not run true to form and the races, therefore, often are unplayable.  One potential source of funds for reducing the take out is the bloated purses for such races.  If you are able, you should restrict use of New York Bred funds to pay bonuses to New York breds that win in open company, as many other states do.

Attracting new fans requires outreach.  Racing can be attractive on many levels – as a sport, as a gambling opportunity, and as an intellectual exercise in handicapping.  Appropriate marketing materials can be tailored to appeal to people with each of those interests, and free admission days, with free programs and handicapping seminars, could take some of the mystery out of the game for new fans.

If racing is to have a future, the interests of fans (i.e., bettors) need to be served much better than they are now.  Unfortunately, fans do not have an effective organized voice, as do the horsemen and their industry; however, the lack of such voice does not diminish the importance of fans to the survival of racing.  Throw the fans a bone or two and you will do a lot to get racing heading in the right direction again and to fix the terrible public image of NYRA.