Why Can't You Make a Collect Call to a Cell Phone? Did you know that you can't make a collect call to a cell phone? Bob Sullivan of MSNBC.com tells us why, in the first of a regular series of one-question interviews.

Why Can't You Make a Collect Call to a Cell Phone?

Why Can't You Make a Collect Call to a Cell Phone?

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Did you know that you can't make a collect call to a cell phone? Bob Sullivan of MSNBC.com tells us why, in the first of a regular series of one-question interviews.


There's an old terrible joke about being able to tell a phone from a submarine. We won't bore you with it. More to the point is the fact that you can't call collect into a cell phone. It's not something you'd think you'd have to use very often, but think about it. What if you get thrown in jail, you need to call a friend, your friend is one of those people who only has a cell phone? Or what if your cell phone dies, and you find one of the last payphones in America, and you need to call your friend? So it is time for the one-question interview, although I do reserve the right to follow up. Bob Sullivan writes the msnbc.com blog called Red Tape Chronicles. He knows the answer. Hey, Bob.

Mr. BOB SULLIVAN (Blogger, Red Tape Chronicles; Author, "Gotcha Capitalism"): Hey, how are you?

PESCA: Bob, here is the one question. I'm sure I'll have follow-ups, but here it is. Why can't you make a collect call into a cell phone?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, if you'd think about it, when you make a collect call, the recipient call company, in other words, the person who accepts the call, their phone company is acting effectively as a bill collector for the caller's phone company, or the pay phone, or wherever that call is made. And that's a pretty complicated, sophisticated affair.

And as I'm sure everybody knows, cell phone companies already have enough to bill, and that's a pretty complicated bill already. And they're just not set up to reach back through the chain and get the money from you and then pass it along to whoever - all the companies that initiated the call. So, it's really just a matter of setting up the billing system, and cell phone companies haven't bothered to do that.

PESCA: I guess it's because there is not that much demand. So few collect calls are made. If there was a lot of money to be made, they'd probably set up the billing for it.

Mr. SULLIVAN: I guarantee if there was the kind of money that made it pay, they would be doing this, but there isn't much demand. Collect calls, as you hinted at, would be an advent - just a proliferation of cell phones, collect calls are far less important. But they are important to some people. And there is a lot of discussion about prisoners, for example, in jail, and how they call home. And a lot of times they need to use collect calls. And if they have to call a cell phone, they have a big problem on their hands. But there is a workaround, as you, you know, wherever there is demand, people come up with some solution.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. SULLIVAN: If you involve a third party, eventually the folks from jail or anyone can do this, will call an 800 number and that company will relay the call to the cell phone for you. And of course, they will do the billing directly from a credit card, so that makes everybody happy.

PESCA: Wait, how do you, the third party, somebody with a hard line, you call him and how do they get the cell phone person?

Mr. SULLIVAN: That's right. Well, they simply set up a three-way call in. This is not something that you do private. There are companies that are set up to do exactly this. It's not too different from having a pre-paid calling card, which is really the best solution if you find yourself in that situation, to have a calling card in your wallet with five dollars on it or so...

PESCA: Right.

Mr. SULLIVAN: For any kind of emergency like this. And that's often how folks in jail will be able to (unintelligible) calling card. But there are companies that are set up exclusively just to call for you, collect calls, to cell phones.

PESCA: OK. So our advice is, try not to knock over liquor stores. If you do, have five dollars on a prepaid calling card. Bob...

Mr. SULLIVAN: Mom always said, if you do speed, have a calling card.

PESCA: Bob Sullivan of the Red Tape Chronicles, author of the book "Gotcha Capitalism." We got you. Thank you, Bob.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you.

PESCA: And that is it for this hour of the BPP. As always, I want to thank you for joining us and sharing strategies on what to do when you're in prison. We should have a recurring series on that called So You're in Prison. I'm Mike Pesca. We're online all the time at npr.org/bryantpark. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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