MONEY Tech

How AT&T and Verizon’s Loss is Your Gain

A customer walks into a Verizon Wireless retail store in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014.
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Get ready for better promotions, lower prices, and more choices.

Change is afoot, and it’s been a long time coming. After T-Mobile T-MOBILE US INC TMUS 2.0841% officially kicked off its Un-Carrier campaign in early 2013, the domestic wireless industry was bound to change. CEO John Legere has spearheaded the company’s Un-Carrier strategy, launching a number of aggressive pricing plans and other offers. T-Mobile has since followed up with a string of other new promotions and initiatives, tempting potential switchers to take the plunge.

Meanwhile, Sprint SPRINT NEXTEL CORP. S 1.9608% has been struggling, and the No. 3 carrier is counting on its new leadership to turn the tide. Now, the two top dogs, AT&T AT&T INC. T 0.0895% and Verizon VERIZON COMMUNICATIONS INC. VZ -0.0638% , are starting to feel some competitive pressure as they lose their duopolistic grip on the U.S. wireless industry — and just this week, both companies tempered investor expectations for the current quarter.

Verizon sticks to the high-end

Verizon kicked things off with a news release on Monday that indicated demand for 4G smartphones remains “very strong,” and the carrier continues to see momentum in this department. On top of that, Big Red saw 75% of smartphone upgrades qualify as high quality.

Then came the bad news. Verizon is spending heavily on promotional offers, which is helping drive volumes this quarter. These promotional expenses are expected to pressure its wireless segment EBITDA and will put a dent in profitability. At the same time, the No. 1 carrier also acknowledged that retail postpaid disconnects are on the rise due to intense competition and promotions from rivals. Translation: Verizon is spending big on promotions but continues to lose customers.

AT&T is also feeling the burn of churn

Just a day later, AT&T CFO John Stephens spoke at an investing conference, similarly indicating that the company expects postpaid churn to increase in the fourth quarter. Though Ma Bell will close out 2014 with “one of [its] best years ever” in terms of full-year postpaid churn, this could be the beginning of a troubling trend.

Stephens explained this is the first year that the new Apple iPhones were launched simultaneously on all four carriers, and because AT&T has the largest install base of iPhone users, it similarly faces higher competition targeting iPhone users. However, this is actually incorrect, as the iPhone 5s launched on all four carriers in 2013.

The CFO also dodged a question about whether or not 2015 will see full-year postpaid churn levels rise compared to 2014 — competition is only going to continue escalating.

Can you hear me now?

None of this is to suggest that AT&T or Verizon are seeing a mass exodus of subscribers that will cripple their respective businesses — far from it. Rather, small cracks are starting to appear in the armor of the top two players. Both companies continue to have the largest subscriber bases in the U.S. and have been relatively resilient to pricing pressures, in part because of public perceptions around rivals’ networks.

Carrier Total Retail Subscribers (MRQ)
Verizon 106.2 million
AT&T 86.3 million
Sprint 45.9 million
T-Mobile 42.0 million

Source: SEC filings. MRQ = most recent quarter. Figures do not include wholesale connections or connected devices.

That’s especially true for T-Mobile, which has long suffered from these negative connotations. But T-Mobile has made impressive progress modernizing its 4G LTE network during the past 12 to 18 months. I personally switched from AT&T to T-Mobile recently and saw my cellular data speeds soar by five times in my area (Denver).

T-Mobile is absolutely catching up in terms of network quality and, over time, it will dispel the perception that its network is inferior — the primary goal of its current Test Drive offer. Once that is achieved, price will be the determining factor, and T-Mobile has shown its willingness to go straight for the jugular when it comes to pricing.

Sprint’s fortunes are a little less clear. The carrier stagnated under Dan Hesse and paid dearly for technological missteps including its original choice of WiMAX over LTE. Meanwhile, the company’s heavy debt load — even after the SoftBank capital infusion — limits its ability to invest heavily in network infrastructure upgrades that are extremely capital intensive.

To be fair, Verizon also has a massive debt load after buying out Vodafone’s stake in Verizon Wireless, but the company’s network is already quite mature, so its capital needs are less intense.

You’re the real winner of competition

Competition is only going to pick up in the coming years. T-Mobile has made it quite clear that it has no intention of letting up anytime soon, and it will continue to push against its larger rivals. The Un-Carrier even believes it can overtake Sprint in total customers by year’s end.

The net result of all of this is that you, the consumer, will benefit in the form of better promotions, lower prices, and more choices.

 

MONEY Shopping

New Moves by 3 Tech Giants Aim to Get a Bigger Piece of Your Wallet

Apple Pay
Bryan Thomas—Getty Images

Google, Amazon, and Apple are all pushing new tools—and often, encroaching on the turf of competitors—with the hopes of snagging a larger cut of everyday consumer purchases.

Several of the world’s tech giants are squaring off, thanks to new strategies and tools that have one common goal: to bring their respective companies a bigger slice of the enormous consumer spending pie.

Google vs. Amazon

This week the Wall Street Journal reported that Google is working on a “Buy” button that would allow online shoppers to make quick one-click purchases—a feature that’s most often associated with Amazon, the world’s largest e-retailer. Google wouldn’t run factories full of merchandise, nor would it sell and ship goods like Amazon does. Instead, in theory (none of this is settled, or even confirmed by Google), consumers would be able to buy goods in a single click directly from partner retailers that show up in Google Shopping search results. Google is reportedly also considering an expedited shipping subscription service along the lines of Amazon Prime or ShopRunner, which would store the customer’s billing info and shipping address.

Google dominates search in general. Yet when people are searching specifically for things to buy, far more start their online shopping expeditions at Amazon. Naturally, Google would love to have more consumers browsing for goods with its search tools. What’s more, it would love to keep them within the Google sphere when actually making purchases. Right now, consumers who start shopping searches at Google are typically sent to other sites—including Amazon—when the time comes to buy. Google would much rather keep a tight hold of the eyeballs and wallets of shoppers.

Amazon vs. Ebay

Amazon recently announced the introduction of a new “Make an Offer” feature that allows customers to bid and negotiate on the price of certain merchandise—options that are in the wheelhouse of eBay, which was born as an auction site and has evolved into more of a general marketplace for sellers big and small.

For now at least, Amazon is essentially just the host site for sellers who are willing to haggle with customers. Only items falling under a few sales categories, including Fine Art and Sport and Entertainment Collectibles, are available on the “Make an Offer” basis, and it’s always a third-party vendor (not Amazon) that does all the negotiating and selling. After a customer views the suggested price of an item and makes an offer, “The seller will receive the customer’s lower price offer through email, at which point the seller can accept, reject or counter the offer,” an Amazon.com press release explained. “The seller and customer can continue to negotiate through email until the negotiation is complete.”

Consumer Reports noted of Amazon’s new tool, “By adding a haggling element to its traditional fixed-price model, Amazon broadens its appeal to a wider audience of consumers motivated not simply by low prices, but by the thrill of the hunt and scoring a deal.” Note that there are no open auctions, and that all haggling takes place privately between the two parties involved—not unlike the negotiations that take place between buyer and seller in a car dealership, or perhaps via a connection made on Craigslist or Priceline. Customers can “Make an Offer” on roughly 150,000 items right now at Amazon, and the e-retail giant plans on expanding the bidding option to hundreds of thousands more items in 2015.

Apple Pay vs. All Other Forms of Payment

When Apple Pay debuted in October, the mobile payment tool—allowing customers to pay for goods with a tap of an iPhone—could be used at Macy’s, McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and several other major chains, but overall less than 3% of U.S. merchants that take credit cards were ready to accept Apple Pay. As the New York Times reported this week, however, dozens more banks, retailers, and at least one NBA Arena (Amway Center in Orlando) have since started accepting Apple Pay, and experts increasingly are of the mind that Apple has the best chances of making smartphone payments commonplace:

“Retailers and payment companies see Apple Pay as the implementation that has the best chance at mass consumer adoption, which has eluded prior attempts,” said Patrick Moorhead, president of Moor Insights & Strategy, a research firm. “They believe it will solve many of the problems they had before with electronic payments.”

Still, there’s a very long way to go before a critical mass of consumers are paying for purchases regularly with iPhones, or any smartphones. Many big-name retailers, including Best Buy, Walmart, and Gap, aren’t accepting Apple Pay because they’re trying to create their own smartphone payment system—which may or may not be easier and more convenient to use than Apple Pay. More importantly, consumers generally still see old-fashioned debit and credit cards as a more convenient and certainly a more comfortable way to pay for stuff. For smartphone payments to be a true success, Apple Pay or other services will have to convince the masses otherwise.

 

TIME technology

The 5 Hottest Toys Americans Are Searching for Right Now

Operations Inside A Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Location Ahead Of Black Friday
A Microsoft Xbox One game console at a Wal-Mart ahead of Black Friday in Los Angeles on Nov. 24, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Disney’s ‘Frozen,’ Xbox One and the Skylanders game set to be among the top sellers this year

The upcoming holiday shopping season is crucial for the $22-billion U.S. toy industry, and early data suggests Disney’s “Frozen,” as well as electronics such as Xbox One and the Skylanders game, will be among the top sellers this year.

Data provider Experian Marketing Services has given Fortune a look at the hottest toy searches for the week ended Nov. 22, and “Frozen” handily tops the list. With the Christmas holiday just a little over four weeks away, consumers who wait too long could find it challenging to scoop up some of the top sellers.

“The holiday shopping season [is] more and more condense,” said Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of toy-focused website TTPM.com. It used to last 12 weeks, and then eight, he added. “Now it is a five-week season.”

Silver estimates that last year as many as 50 toys were sold out at some point during the holiday season, as retailers can find it challenging to restock shelves so quickly. But many of those supply shortages were temporary, and no one item became impossible to find. Retail executives at chains such as Toys ‘R’ Us say they are well positioned after months of merchandise planning to ensure they can meet demand.

Roughly half of all Americans plan to buy toys as gifts this year, according to a recent Nielsen poll of more than 2,200 adults. Alhough that indicates there will be a lot of interest, observers such as Fitch Ratings have said toy promotions will remain intense, as traditional brick-and-mortar retailers such as Toys ‘R’ Us compete with online retailers, including Amazon AMZN -0.89% .

Here are five toys that are dominating America’s search engines just a few days before the holiday season kicks into high gear.

Activision Blizzard’s ‘Skylanders’ videogame property has been a hot seller since its debut in 2011.
Courtesy of Activision Publishing, Inc.

1. Frozen

Walt Disney’s “Frozen” leads Experian’s list, with the search term “Frozen dolls” gaining 181% in popularity on a week-over-week basis. “Frozen” is so popular that interest in the princess line has topped Barbie, the first time the fashion doll didn’t top the National Retail Federation’s holiday “Top Toys” survey in its 11-year history. Disney, which owns the “Frozen” property, benefits most from this craze though Mattel, and Jakks Pacific will also see stronger sales for the brand as they manufactured the dolls, costumes and other items based on the popular film. Retailers are also ready to meet demand (Toys ‘R’ Us, for example, has 250 “Frozen” items on its website).

2. Dareway

Scooters often turn in a strong holiday performance and this year is no exception, as a $200 scooter called the Dareway ranks as the second most popular toy search. The Dareway looks like a mini-Segway and is designed for kids that weigh 89 pounds or less. Famosa, the toy maker behind the Dareway, claims the toy is essentially a hybrid–mixing features of a scooter and ride-on-cars. The item first hit shelves two weeks ago and has already sold out three times (it was supposed to come to market earlier in the year, but had some issues getting imported from Spain). Toy experts have pointed out that scooters remain a popular toy as they encourage kids to play outdoors.

3. Skylanders Trap Team

Activision Blizzard’s “Skylanders” videogame property has been a hot seller ever since its debut in 2011, and each year the franchise is expanded with a new line of physical collectible toys that can interact with a video game. Though the technology that Activision first developed has led to knock offs by Nintendo and Disney, this list indicates Activision’s line remains the most popular. Searches for the “Skylanders Trap Team” have risen 30% for the latest week, Experian said. The newest version of the franchise has games available for traditional consoles such as the PlayStation and the Wii, as well as mobile versions for Android, iOS and Fire OS.

4. Max Tow Truck

Among the top five toys, only the Max Tow Truck is new to the scene. It ranked 4th on Experian’s latest list, but wasn’t among the top 10 hottest searches in the prior week. That suggests that interest has notably spiked for this toy, a truck that costs about $60. Made by Jakks Pacific, the truck can pull and push up to 200 pounds and is stocked at all the major toy retailers. Of course, Jakks also developed an app for this toy.

5. Xbox One

The Xbox One made headlines late last month when a special promotion touted a $50 limited-time price cut to the console, bringing the price down to $349 for the holiday season. The price cut could be generating greater interest in the console, though searches tumbled 47% from the prior week. And while PlayStation 4 hasn’t generated as many searches as the Xbox One, the former device has been selling better. The PlayStation 4 has reportedly sold 13.5 million units through September, while the International Business Times said there are estimates that around 5 million Xbox One units have been sold. (Microsoft doesn’t release sales data for the Xbox One.)

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

MONEY online shopping

Believe it or Not, Amazon Isn’t the King of Cheap Holiday Prices

mouse on top of present
Junos—Getty Images

Amazon is losing its edge as the lowest-cost retailer.

This is shaping up to be the year all the rules of shopping were broken. First came the bombshell revelation from NerdWallet showing that Black Friday goods may not be quite the deals retailers claim, as many were selling year-old items at the same prices as last year’s Black Friday. And if the newest report from ShopSavvy is correct, the decade-long maxim that Amazon.com AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 0.7288% has the lowest prices could be wrong as well.

For those unaware of the company, ShopSavvy’s purpose is to help would-be shoppers find the best deal on products by providing retailer information through its website and its barcode-scanning mobile app on Android and iOS. And if its recent ShopSavvy Showdown (say that three times fast) is correct, both Amazon and Best Buy BEST BUY BBY 1.3773% offer higher prices on overlapping items than the undisputed King of Retail: Wal-Mart WAL-MART STORES INC. WMT -0.9076% .

The survey says …

This survey is not the first showing that Amazon is losing its edge as the lowest-cost retailer. Earlier this year, a report from Wells Fargo and online price-tracking company 360pi found Amazon had higher prices overall when compared to Wal-Mart and Target in four critical areas: shoes, electronics, housewares, and health products. However, the report found that Amazon typically offered the lowest prices when it came to “like-to-like” items. Essentially, when a specific item was on both sites Amazon still had the lowest price.

However, this newest data finds the exact opposite. The survey, based only on the same products for sale at Walmart, Amazon, and Best Buy, finds that “Wal-Mart has the cheaper option on over 50% more products than Amazon and Best Buy across the categories analyzed.” In addition, the survey notes Wal-Mart’s online price match policy, in which the company specifically agrees to match prices from Amazon and Best Buy.

The survey results were rather shocking when compared with Amazon. In the heavily trafficked categories of electronics and TVs (the survey distinguishes between the two), Wal-Mart was cheaper on 66% and 85% of total products, respectively. The average percentage difference of price was 28% and 23%, again, respectively. Essentially, this survey finds that shopping at Wal-Mart, and not Amazon, for TVs and electronics will save you nearly a quarter of your money.

So I should go to Wal-Mart right now, right?

If these results are correct, you should go directly to Wal-Mart and not worry about shopping around online, right? Well, not so fast. As the survey clearly shows, Wal-Mart didn’t always have the lowest price, although it was a good bet they did. In addition, the survey didn’t go into a lot of detail about the product selection. Without that critical piece of information, it’s hard to know whether these goods are representative of a true head-to-head comparison or whether these items are merely a good selection for Wal-Mart.

In addition, the data presentation concerns me. Although there were three retailers chosen for the survey, the data was only presented as Wal-Mart versus Amazon and Wal-Mart versus Best Buy. Without the third head-to-head comparison, Amazon versus Best Buy, the survey can come across as less of an unbiased comparison and more of a pro-Wal-Mart piece.

Finally, competition between megaretailers is rather intense. In many cases, retailers consider prices of 3%-5% lower as being worthy of running commercials specifically outlining these differences. The closest ShopSavvy comparison between Wal-Mart and the other retailers was in the TV category, with Wal-Mart being “only” 15% cheaper than Best Buy on average. When matched up against Amazon in the Kids category, ShopSavvy reports that Wal-Mart is a massive 45% cheaper on average.

Overall, this doesn’t mean that ShopSavvy’s data is wrong, but this should be considered only one data point in your holiday deal-hunting comparison. One shopping rule that will never be broken is to continue to shop around for the best deal; you’ll be thankful you do.

TIME viral

Australians Use #IllRideWithYou Hashtag in Solidarity With Muslims During Sydney Siege

A bid to prevent an anti-Muslim backlash

Even as tensions remained high in the midst of a hostage siege in Sydney on Monday, some Australians were taking to social media to ensure local Muslims feel safe from potential backlash.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the motive was of a gunman who took hostages in a local café, but a black-and-white Arabic flag could be seen, leading to speculation that an Islamist terrorist was the culprit. Users soon started tweeting the hashtag #IllRideWithYou.

When Rachael Jacobs noticed the woman sitting next to her on the train silently removing her hijab, she told her to keep it on — “I’ll ride with you.”

Others spread the hashtag in a sign of solidarity.

According to social analytics tracker Topsy, the hashtag had been tweeted more than 166,000 times in the eight hours following @sirtessa’s tweet.

Read next: Central Sydney in Lockdown Amid a Developing Hostage Crisis

MONEY Tech

Why Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos Embraces Failure

Experimenting is essential as long as you don’t bet the company.

For many companies, suffering a nine-figure inventory charge related to a failed product would be a catastrophic event. But for Amazon.com AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 0.7288% CEO Jeff Bezos, it’s just another day at office.

The folks at Amazon barely blinked last quarter when the company took a $170 million writedown related to its much-maligned Fire Phone. In fact, that charge wasn’t even mentioned in Amazon’s earnings press release, but rather contained in its subsequent Form 10-Q filing with the SEC. And, no, it’s not as though Amazon was simply hoping investors wouldn’t notice. It’s that in the broad scheme of things, Bezos thinks it’s relatively insignificant.

In a recent interview with Business Insider, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos practically guaranteed that more Fire Phones are on the way, insisting that it’s “going to take many iterations” to determine whether the project is truly a failure.

Failure is always an option

To better understand Bezos’ perspective, consider his comments surrounding that claim.

Immediately beforehand, Bezos offered several examples to shed light on how Amazon has always done business. That notably includes Amazon Auctions, which he laments “didn’t work out very well.” But out of Auctions morphed zShops, which also failed. Then finally, out of zShops came Amazon Marketplace, which became its third-party seller business and now accounts for over 40% of the total units sold on Amazon.com. What at first looked like a massive failure is now an enormous success.

More comparable along the hardware lines, Bezos went on to note that the Kindle is now on its seventh generation and reminded investors that the company has had trouble keeping up with early demand for products such as Fire TV, the Fire TV stick, and Amazon Echo. To be fair, unlike the crowded smartphone industry, those are all innovative creations operating in relatively young markets, so it may not be entirely appropriate to place the Fire Phone in the same bucket.

But does that mean investors can look forward to more big writedowns? Probably not. As Bezos stated, Amazon has generally erred on the side of caution by not producing enough of its hit hardware products. So the next time(s) around, you can be sure Amazon will be much more careful about managing Fire Phone inventories and learning from its previous failure.

One thing Bezos will never do

That also doesn’t mean Amazon is done making — and potentially failing at — other big bets. Bezos elaborated on the relative insignificance of last quarter’s $170 million charge with one caveat:

I’ve made billions of dollars of failures at Amazon.com. […] None of those things are fun, but they also don’t matter. Companies that don’t continue to experiment and don’t embrace failure, they eventually get in the desperate position where the only thing they can do is make a Hail Mary bet at the end of their corporate existence. Whereas companies that are making bets all along, even big bets — but not “bet the company” bets, I don’t believe in “bet the company” bets. That’s when you’re desperate. That’s the last thing you can do. [emphasis mine]

That last point is arguably the most significant: However bold or costly Amazon’s investment decisions might seem, Bezos will never allow them to occur should they threaten the company as a whole. So keeping in mind that Amazon is likely to be much more careful with the Fire Phone going forward, you can be sure it won’t be allowed to run Amazon into the ground.

The funny thing is, this thought process isn’t even remotely new for Amazon. Back in his first letter to shareholders in 1997, Bezos wrote: “We will make bold rather than timid investment decisions where we see a sufficient probability of gaining market leadership advantages. Some of these investments will pay off, others will not, and we will have learned another valuable lesson in either case.”

In the end, the first-gen Fire Phone’s failure is a horrifying example of the “others will not” category. But astute long-term investors know all too well that the propensity to both embrace and learn from that failure is exactly what made Amazon the thriving business we know today.

TIME

Tech Tips To Keep Your Kid’s Belief in Santa Alive

Christmas tree surrounded with gifts
Tom Merton—Getty Images

"Don't Stop Believin'"

It’s that time of year! There’s a chill in the wind, bells in the air, eggnog on the menu and a strong probability that your kid will pick up The Truth About Santa on the mean city streets or in a first grade classroom.

Yes, Virginia, there is a chance that some December you’ll send your child to school and have his beliefs in Santa crushed right out of him by some truth-speaking sibyl spreading the gospel of disbelief on the lower school playground. While preschoolers and kindergartners are usually insulated from these malicious magic-busters, because most of the tiny tikes still believe that Jolly Old Saint Nick keeps track of who’s naughty and nice in some massive Google doc at the North Pole, first or second graders are a different story. When kids leave the cots of kindergarten, the ranks of the True Believers start to thin.

As much as some parents (myself very much included) want to keep the magic of the season alive, kids these days are a wily lot, seemingly born with a natural sense of skepticism about anything that’s not plugged into the World Wide Web. Luckily, there’s technology that can help parents keep even the savviest youngsters believing in Santa just a little bit longer.

Reindeer cam

In a holiday twist on the internet classics of corgi cams, pitbull puppy cams, and sloth cams, this handy website shows a steady stream of Santa’s reindeer just chilling out in their barn at the North Pole. Youngsters can watch the reindeer eat, drink and be merry while preparing for their big night pulling Santa’s sleigh. They can even wait for Santa to make a live appearance at regularly scheduled times.

Watch here: Reindeercam.com

North Pole Radio

iHeartRadio just launched a new radio station hosted by DJ Santa Claus playing Christmas favorites all day long. Between Vince Guaraldi classics and modern twists on carols, Santa and his elves provide commentary between songs. Plus, there’s a call-in phone number (929-BIG-ELF1) for kids to leave their Christmas requests, which Santa will be playing and responding to all month long.

Listen here: North Pole Radio

Kringl App

This one blew my kid’s mind last year and I fully plan on using it again. This free app uses your phone’s video camera to superimpose Santa into your very own living room in just a few quick steps of technological magic. You simply open the app and follow the directions that include filming for a few seconds, applying some easy-to-operate effects and you suddenly have indisputable proof that Santa exists. (Just don’t ask me how it works!)

More info here: http://www.kringlapp.com/

Norad Santa Tracker

For more than 50 years, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and its ominous-sounding predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) have tracked Santa’s Christmas Eve flight ever since a local media ad encouraged children to call Santa directly, but misprinted the number. Instead of reaching Santa, the phone rang through to the crew commander on duty at the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center. The rest is history. Now, kids around the world can follow Santa’s flight on NORAD’s website, which has been translated into eight languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Chinese. There’s also a mobile version, a holiday countdown, games and daily activities.

Watch here: http://www.noradsanta.org/

Portable North Pole

This website is awesome, but it does require an ability to stomach uploading personal information. Enter some details about your child (first name, age, city, Christmas wish) and Santa will deliver a personalized message that will bring a smile to your kid’s face. I have done the free version for the last three years, but fudge my son’s birth date, don’t upload a photo, and don’t enter credit card information. The result is a video that is magical enough—filled with elves, Christmas cheer and Santa reporting on your child’s behavior and relaying your little one’s Christmas wish while giving a tour of his North Pole workshop. It may be more magical with more information, but no one has stolen my kid’s identity yet. Sadly, there are enough scammers out there that we all need to be careful.

More information here: Portable North Pole

Call Santa

There are several ways to have Santa remind your child to stay on his good side until Christmas. There’s the Calling Santa app, the Parents Calling Santa app and the Video Calls with Santa app all of which let kids have a little chat with the Big Man himself. But again, be careful with your personal information. These apps probably work best on younger children who are less likely to question Santa’s internet connection. There’s also Christmas Dialer, which you can use to deliver a message from either Santa or one of his elves. A pre-recorded message is free, but premium ones cost money. This also works for unsettling your grown friends who might be wondering why an elf will be watching over them each night.

More information here: ChristmasDialer.com

Google Santa Tracker

The search giant has launched its annual Santa Tracker, which, like NORAD, maps Old Saint Nick’s Christmas Eve travels. The site is also acting as a digital advent calendar unlocking new games and activities each day as we countdown to Christmas.

Watch here: Google Santa Tracker

@Santa Twitter

For the truly tech-savvy kid, Santa is tweeting @Santa and there’s no doubt he’s in touch with what’s hot with kids these days.

MONEY Tech

How Comcast Plans to Boost Your Internet Bill With New Fees

Comcast building
Matt Rourke—AP

"People who use more should pay more, and people who use less should pay less," Executive VP David Cohen told investors in May.

Comcast COMCAST CORP. CMCSA 1.5633% has begun testing data caps in certain markets and plans to make what it prefers to call “usage-based” billing standard policy across the country within the next five years.

Previously, in nearly all cases, Internet data was an unlimited flat-rate, all-you-can-eat buffet. Under its new plan, which Comcast has already rolled out in a number of test cities, the company will sell users a flat amount of data and then charge them overages. This will take a system where customers had cost certainty and replace it with the model that has served the cell-phone industry so well — one where subscribers pay more if they go over a set limit.

“People who use more should pay more, and people who use less should pay less,” Executive VP David Cohen told investors in May, BGR reported.

That sounds correct on the surface, and charging more for data over a certain amount may be a necessity in a world where so many of us are streaming video content over our broadband connections as part of our daily lives. But the cable companies, which are also Internet service providers (along with the phone company ISPs), have a poor track record when it comes to billing. Data caps may be logical, and Comcast, which is waiting federal approval of its $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable TIME WARNER CABLE INC. TWC 2.0225% may be going about things the right way, but consumers are right to be wary about what this means for their bill.

What is Comcast doing?

Comcast has been testing two different plan pricing strategies in an expanding number of markets (there are variations and differences depending upon the market). One potential plan offers set amounts of data starting at 300 GB for a fixed price, with additional data being sold in 50 GB blocks for $10. The second plan targets low-volume users and offers them 5 GB of data at a set price, but there is a twist. Customers enrolled in this plan, called the “Flexible Data Option,” receive a $5 credit if they use less than 5 GB in a month but pay $1 per extra GB they use.

With the larger plans, Comcast appears to be making every reasonable effort to allow customers to track where they stand when it comes to data usage. People on the 300 MB or bigger plans will receive an email to their primary Comcast user email address when they reach 90% and 100% of their monthly allotment. In some markets you can also arrange to be notified when you reach 50%, 60%, 70%, 80%, 110%, and 125% of your usage. It’s possible in some markets to set up notifications via text message, and the company will also make an automated phone call to its customers when they pass 100% for the second month in a row.

The company also provides an online usage meter where customers on all tiers can track how much data they have consumed.

For subscribers to these more expensive plans, Comcast appears to be making a reasonable effort to help people avoid overages. The same can’t be said for the Flexible Data customers who are specifically not currently included in the notification system. That means that the customers choosing the cheapest plan are the ones most likely to be blasted with costly, unexpected overages.

Comcast should opt for total transparency

Under these plans, Comcast can profit by charging reasonable overage fees to its higher-data customers on 300 GB and above plans and by hitting its lower-end users with prices per GB for overages that are five times higher. Comcast may need to do this as more customers use more data and strain increases on its infrastructure. But if capping data and adding overage charges is really about maintaining network integrity, the company should warn all customers when they are getting close to their allotment and require authorization to add more data for the month.

There’s a way to do this right, if it truly needs to be done at all, and it involves putting choice in the hand of the customer and not using a data cap to inflate people’s bills without their consent. Comcast can still charge more and better control its resources — which is good for the company — while ensuring that its subscribers retain control over their expenses and avoid monthly billing surprises.

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