We live in a confusing world. Things that used to be free are now expensive, while things that used to be expensive are now free. But as the rollercoaster moves up and down, how are we doing? Are we winning or are we losing out?
Free now : You texty thing
It is hard to imagine it now but there was a time when you could be charged in excess of 5p for each word contained in a festive greeting texted to a friend. The first text message was sent in 1992 by developer Neil Papworth to a colleague called Richard Jarvis at Vodafone and it read, simply, "Merry Christmas". While the message may have been simple, the technology was anything but and as phones didn't have keyboards back then poor Papworth had to use a computer to type and send his missive. Vodafone and other operators quickly realised that they were onto something and by the mid 1990s they were charging their growing user base in this country, and elsewhere, in the region of 11p (in old money) for a 160-character message. Sending a message not much longer than this sentence would have cost the typical user as much as 33p as they would have gone above the 160-character limit and been penalised for doing so. A person who had the temerity to send a text message from one country to another could expect to be hit harder. That is all gone now though and text messages are often either bundled into phone packages or are available for free through apps such as WhatsApp and Apple's iMessage service.
Fee now: Clamp down
Dublin's beloved clamping service turned 21 this summer, but where was the cake and why was there no party? Because no one likes clamping, that's why. It was rolled out in Dublin on August 10th, 1998, and, like some class of virulent disease, it quickly spread to other urban centres. Back then any motorist who wanted to be freed from the yellow menace had to fork out €65 – today it costs €80, but the fees associated with clamping are not where the real money tree is buried. More than 23,838 vehicles were clamped in Dublin in the first six months of this year resulting in just under €.2 million in fees to Dublin City Council. The council also raises around €25m from paid on-street parking each year. If you spend just two hours parked in the city centre each week, it will cost you at least €200 a year.
Free now: Call me maybe
There is no reason why anyone should ever spend any money on phone calls again. Admittedly, the broadband needed to use these services comes at a cost, as do the smartphones you need to access such services but between the bundled minutes that come with your phone package and the likes of FaceTime and Skype and Viber, all calls are free.
Fee now: Suitcase of cash
It is hard to remember it now, but there was a time – and it is not all that long ago – when we could arrive in airports with massive suitcases packed with virtually everything we owned, safe in the knowledge that no matter how much our suitcase weighed, the airlines taking us off this island for our two-week break somewhere sunny would be happy to take care of them for us for nothing. Today if you want to check in a modest-sized bag when flying with most airlines it will set you back as much as €65 if you do it at the airport. And that’s only one-way. We have now reached a point where your bag can pay more than you do for a flight to the Costa Del Sol.
Free now: Development fund
Remember cameras? And film? And paying to have film developed? Remember the excitement of collecting the developed role of film and the crushing disappointment when you realised that you were not – in fact – Annie Leibovitz and all the photographs you had paid around 70p each for were terrible? Well those days are long gone. There is no need for fancy cameras or film anymore because we carry a technology which is a billion times better and infinitely more practical on our person at all times. When cameras became an integral part of our phones, we became better photographers because we could see, in real time, the results of our pointing and clicking. And even if we are not so good, there are always free apps to make us seem better. This is – of course – a double-edged sword and the omnipresence of high-end cameras and the never-ending supply of filters, not to mention platforms on which to publish the pictures – means we are now incapable of actually taking in the world around us without taking pictures of it and posting them on Instagram first.
Fee now: Keep it in cheque
It’s hard to know where we are with banking charges. Banks used to make us pay through the nose for the privilege of allowing them to make money from our money. Then they stopped charging us anything. Then they crashed and started imposing all sorts of ridiculous charges. Try and cash a cheque in a branch and they will make you pay dearly for it and heaven forbid you want to buy foreign exchange or send money to another country. There are few people – except those who can clearly afford it – who will pay less than €80 a year for the privilege of having a current account.
Free now: Fine books and book fines
Earlier this year, library fines were abolished for overdue items in an effort to encourage people back through the doors of one of the last great free institutions we have left to us. The move was made by the national library to encourage members of the public to return undamaged, overdue library items to their local libraries. Replacement charges were also removed on children’s items. Bear in mind the scrapping of the fines is not a free for all and you will still have to pay for the cost of replacement if you lose a library book or spill a bowl of cereal all over it.
Fee now: Money box
Watching the telly has never been free but today the act of passively watching the Late Late of a Friday night typically costs a whole lot more than it once did. It used to be the case that you bought – or sometimes rented – a telly and paid your TV licence (obviously) and that was the end of it. You just plugged in the box, adjusted the rabbit ears and away you went. Now more than two million Irish homes shell out over €500 a year to providers which offer hundreds of channels that never get watched. Then there is the Netflix subscription and the Now TV subscription and the Apple and Amazon TV subscriptions and the broadband charges needed to watch those services and the annual cost of watching the television can easily climb to least €1,000 every year. It has to be said that the choices are much better, however. Oh, and if you don't want to pay all those charges there is the Saorview option which is like a souped-up version of the rabbit ears of days gone by. And we really mean it when we say souped up, as you can get all the channels you want plus a digital recorder for a one-off cost which is significantly less than the annual cost you might pay to a service provider. Just a thought.
Free now: Stamped out
When was the last time you sent an actual letter to someone? If you are anything like Pricewatch you won’t be able to remember. That is because phones and email have made communication with anyone, anywhere and at any time, effortless and much cheaper than it once was. Do you even know how much a stamp costs now? Admittedly, sending a wish-you-were-here WhatsApp message while on your holliers is not really the same as sending a postcard, but it’s a lot less hassle. And it’s free.
Fee Now: Trash talk
Right up to the 1990s Irish households could throw away pretty much whatever they wanted without it hitting them in the wallet. This was not as good a thing as it sounds however as it meant that we threw a huge volume of stuff away without ever really considering the impact our wastefulness was having on the environment. Then in 2003 bin charges were introduced. And they have crept up ever since. While most people have become much better at recycling, there are few households that will have any change out of €150 this year. The charges were not introduced over environmental concerns and were not – it is fair to say – universally popular, but in the long run anything that makes us think before we bin stuff is to be welcomed.
Free now: Phone a friend
When it came to charging people ridiculous sums for having the temerity to want to talk to other people on the telephone, hotels were never found wanting. A 15 second call home to your mammy from Benidorm? That will be €500 please. But then the mobile phone came along and sent that hotel cash cow to the slaughterhouse or at least diverted it into the arms of the mobile phone operators who stepped in and started ripping off consumers. In the bad old days making a four-minute call home while on a trip to Paris would have cost you as much as €5, while someone in Malta was expected to shell out €9.76 for a call of the same length. Even receiving a call cost an absolute fortune. Then the EU came to our aid and roaming charges were eventually abolished – although it did take a decade for it to happen.
Fee now: Plastic fantastic
While Irish people protested about the introduction of bin charges and water charges and higher taxes we, generally speaking, welcomed the introduction of the plastic bag charge. Almost overnight it removed the blight of the fluttering plastic bag from our landscape. Today plastic bags make up less than half of 1 per cent of Irish litter, compared with a quite ridiculous 5 per cent at the start of the 2000s.
Free now: Pay-per paper
There is an elephant in the room we should address. There was a time when, if you wanted to read professionally produced news or feature content, you had no choice but to pay for it. While the option to pay for content is still there and – shameless plug alert – can represent excellent value for money as it does on irishtimes.com, there is also is a lot of free content available but how long it will remain free is hard to say. And if it remains a free-for-all, then how high can the quality be in the long term?
Not free: Distraction tactics
There was a time when flight attendants used to give passengers all sorts of stuff for free. There was booze and food and little snacks which were – most likely – doled out to distract us from the fact that we were travelling eight miles high in a large metal tube full of highly flammable fuel. Those days are long-since gone now and a grim-looking sandwich sweating in a plastic coffin will cost at least a fiver on a plane while a bottle of water will set you back another €2.
Not free: Air time
The number of petrol stations which have started charging people to blow up their tyres is growing. There are garages that charge as much as €1 for a five-minute go on the pump. Charging for air? If you said to us that was going to be a thing 20 years ago we would have laughed in your face.
Not free: Toll taker
Before the EU started helping us to build all our shiny motorways, driving in Ireland was free – if not particularly easy. And by not particularly easy we mean absolutely horrendous. Travelling from Dublin to Cork on rubbish roads took more than four hours while a jaunt from Galway to Dublin on a bus took as long again. Today more than 10 of the major routes around the country and the Dublin Port Tunnel, cost us money each time we use them but they do get us from A to B a whole lot faster.
Not free: Bill-paying bills
Paying for air is one thing. Paying money so someone can take our money from us is a whole other thing. But there are many companies who think it is perfectly okay to charge us to pay our bills. If you choose not to sign up for direct debits, ebilling and all the other electronic efficiencies for their utilities you can expect to pay about €100 more a year than someone who does.