Free incoming vs. pools of cellular minutes
As noted, in Australia, I picked up a SIM at the airport for my unlocked phone. Australia, like Europe and most other places outside North America, uses a system where incoming calls to cell phones are paid by the caller, and are free to the mobile owner. As you may know, in North America and a small number of other countries, the mobile owner pays for airtime on incoming calls, and they look like ordinary landline calls to the caller.
In fact, in North America, there's no easy way for an ordinary consumer to even know a number is a mobile, since you can port landline numbers to cell phones. In Australia, cell phones have their own state-code, so you know when you are calling them, and with a bit of memorizing, you also know which mobile company they belong to, which turns out to be important -- because many mobile companies offer cheap or free calling between two phones on the same carrier (in both systems.) Some mobile companies have cross deals and offer cheap/free calling to any other mobile phone.
The cost to call these caller-pays phones is quite high, anywhere from 20 to 30 cents per minute. In fact, today, these caller-pays cell phones are the most expensive phones in the developed world to call. From here in California, using VoIP, I can call Australian land lines for 2 cents/minute, while it's 22 cents/minute to call a mobile.
So which is better? Europeans argued that because incoming calls are free, people were less afraid to give out mobile numbers, and that spurred the faster deployment of cellular. But in the USA and Canada, people buy giant bundles of minutes that have gotten so cheap they tend to not care that much about the cost of the incoming calls or outgoing ones. When you do care, however (especially with some of the high per minute costs) the free-incoming argument is that you should not have to pay for a call you didn't necessarily choose to have happen.
Since I was just there for a few weeks, I did not buy a plan with tons of minutes. So I definitely noticed my own sense about calling out vs. receiving. Most people don't seem too bothered by calling a mobile. It depends on how much you notice phone costs. It is useful to know that you are calling a mobile, not simply for cost, but because you want to know if you're interrupting somebody. However, that stands in the way of highly useful number portability.
(In my expected future where the phone number goes away, number portability becomes less important. Each person's name/number might have a standard suffix for home, mobile, work, pager, fax etc.)
The arguments are present for both sides, but the big issue I see is that there is no competition in the cost of calls to mobiles. Even though the carriers are happily selling mobile to mobile minutes for near-free, the ability to bill the caller for incoming calls is a cash cow they have no incentive to reduce. As I indicated earlier, there were carriers advertising they would rebate customers some of the money paid in these heavy charges to landline callers. One could imagine a phone that is free, as long as you get enough incoming minutes to pay for your outgoing ones. Hardly fair.
Carriers might, in a more complex regime, be able to charge less to landline callers calling mobiles, but it's hard to say if this would be a big competitive advantage, so has anybody done it? So what can bring the price down as the cost dwindles the way it has?
If you can't tell that you're calling a mobile (as in the USA) then the US model is really the only choice. You don't want to see yourself dinged high fees for what you thought was a local call. The US model was that since I decided to have an expensive cell phone, the airtime was my problem. This model has lead to lots of competition on pricing for airtime in general. Now monthly plans with less than 300 minutes are rare, and they're under 10 cents -- well under in the larger plans, and often unlimited in off-peak periods.
Which system do you like better?