Mild-Mannered Canadian Fury

Doug Stephen is Politely Peeved

Why I'm finally saying farewell to AT&T


Wed, 19 Sep 2012 Ā«permalinkĀ»

I’m done with AT&T. I’ve been an AT&T/Cingular customer for over 7 years. Of course, if you ask them, I’ve only been a customer for 3. I started a plan with Cingular Wireless in 2005, when I bought the original Motorola RAZR. This was when it was still a high-end phone, not a free-on-contract phone. It was my high school graduation present to myself. I thought I was hot shit, until they subsidized the bejeesus out of it 6 months later. When AT&T absorbed Cingular, I stayed on. A few years in to that contract, my mother absorbed the plan in to a family plan without telling me.

When I got my first iPhone, the 3G, I spun out in to my own plan, which is why they think I’ve only been a customer since 2009. I skipped the iPhone 3GS, but the year the iPhone 4 was unveiled I had been working as a professional software engineer for some time at my first job, the infamous defense contractor job. I finally had my own means, so I jumped all over the iPhone 4. It was the first time I had ever bought an Apple product for myself; it was the first time I had ever bought a smartphone; it was the first really really great purchase I had earned on my own, with my own money, and it was also one of the nicest products I had ever owned. I was elated.

But only with the phone. I had never been elated with AT&T, and the advent of the smartphone only served to exacerbate my frustrations. AT&T’s history with the Gulf Coast has never been great. You see, the area that I live in (Pensacola) and the area that I grew up in (Destin, around an hour east of Pensacola) are huge tourist destinations. But during the off season, our population is a minor fraction of what it is during the other half of the year. The stretch of land from Pensacola to Panama City (yes, the infamous 90’s Spring Break Destination) supports around 500000 to 70000 people during the regular year; and that’s over a lot of land. We’re small. But during the tourist season, which is nearly half of our year, our population balloons by nearly an entire order of magnitude; at any one given point in time, there can be millions of people in the area. 4.5 million people visit the Emerald Coast every year. 80% of those people go to Destin. Destin itself, normally a town of around 10000 or 12000 people, can have nearly 50000 people living there continuously during the tourist season. But AT&T’s infrastructure in Destin and the surrounding Emerald Coast is legendarily terrible; they don’t care about the tourist season. If I go to Pensacola Beach, or drive in to Destin to visit my mother for a weekend, my phone becomes nearly unusable. Internet ceases to function; phone calls will dial out if you’re lucky, and you have to talk fast in hopes that the call won’t drop out. SMS is impossible; iMessage has alleviated this slightly since you can hop on to WiFi networks, but for the most part your phone just becomes a conversation piece as well as some sort of warped idol, a Kubrick-esque slab of enigmatic provenance, whose operation is completely without any form of determinism or sensibility. People leave their phones out on tables and glance sidelong, nervously, hoping for some indication that a few decibels of signal have eked through the congestion so that they might make a call to meet up with their friends or make a dinner reservation.

And it’s not just tourist season. Even during the cold months, if any considerable amount of people gather in any one particular place, AT&T completely chokes. Several nights during the year, downtown Pensacola hosts an event known as Gallery Night on one of our main nightlife streets. A combination of reserved patronage and outright public debauchery, it’s one of the more popular events in Pensacola. I’d say no more than a few thousand people, but gathered in to a small chunk of the town taking up no more than 4 or 5 city blocks. And if you have an AT&T phone at Gallery Night, good luck using it. Same goes for the beach, even when it isn’t mobbed by tourists. Full bars, no service.

It’s been like this since EDGE, and it continues to be like this. On top of that, we don’t seem to be anywhere near primed to receive LTE. I fully expect us to be on the tail-end of “before the end of 2013”. It’s how they treated us during the original 3G rollout. My iPhone 3G, which I purchased in January 2009, didn’t receive 3G data until that summer, at which point I couldn’t use it until the following winter. It’s a vicious cycle. And of course, there lies the issues that so many people have with AT&T in general; I travel a decent amount, and if I go anywhere with more than three or four people my phone craps out. It wasn’t terrible during my recent trip to Chicago, but my phone remains mostly useless when I visit places like New Orleans.

Fast forward to last year. I’m prepared to pay money for an iPhone 4S. I know that I’m going to buy one, regardless of the fact that I’ve only had my iPhone 4 for a year (I didn’t purchase one immediately at launch). So I figure, with the phone now available on Sprint and Verizon, the time is ripe for me to split from AT&T and pursue service that will make me happy. Sprint service isn’t wonderful where I live, because there are a lot of stretches of nothingness. So I was leaning towards Verizon. The only good thing still going for AT&T was my grandfathered unlimited data plan. So, I called AT&T to investigate canceling my contract. It turned out that my ETF + iPhone 4S cost at another carrier would be about equivalent to an early upgrade from AT&T, so they tossed me over to their Customer Retention department; nobody calls them that in person anymore, but we all know that’s what they do. If you’ve ever tried to cancel a utility or any other service and the customer rep has transferred you to a “specialist”, what they’re really doing is transferring you to Customer Retention; people trained in negotiation and authorized to offer you baubles in an effort to make you change your mind about leaving. And so the AT&T rep started in with the baubles. Or at least she tried.

In an effort to make both mine and the retention specialist’s lives easier, I just came out and said that the only thing keeping me at AT&T was my unlimited data plan, and the only thing that this was holding me back from was using Mobile Hotspot (tethering). So, in what seemed like an impossibility, the rep told me that they would allow me to use Mobile Hotspot with my unlimited data plan. It didn’t sound possible. It didn’t sound right. But I agreed I wouldn’t cancel my plan if they did this.

Turns out, that didn’t exist. The rep offered me something that was a physical impossibility in AT&T’s system. She just switched me over to an “Enterprise” Data Plan (whatever the fuck that means). I called, talked to a supervisor, and was told that the rep was wrong and they would move me back to my old Unlimited plan, no harm, no foul. Also, no apology, no alternative offer. At that point, though, my conscience over-rode my greed and since I had already agreed not to cancel I went ahead and ordered my new iPhone through AT&T. Even after their zany hijinks, I gave them twice the subsidized price of the new phone and re-upped my contract, that I hated, for two years. At this point, this is my fault for being weak. As an aside, I did go ahead and file a report with the Better Business Bureau. Now, we all know that the BBB are shysters in their own way, effectively forcing businesses to buy their ratings. But they can be used as a decent form of vengeance. The end result of my BBB complaint regarding a retention representative making promises they could’t keep? They refunded $5 for an activation fee or some other fee, I don’t remember anymore.

Five. Dollars.

So to recap, we have a shitty network infrastructure, no LTE in sight, customer services reps who are either liars or untrained, and complete disregard for the fact that said rep messed up. The toxic executive culture and money-over-consumers attitude frequently espoused in public by Herr Stephenson has clearly trickled down. Reagan would be proud.

With that said, I am going to buy an iPhone 5. AT&T probably knows that I am going to buy an iPhone 5. I’m a guaranteed sell, if they make it worth my while. So I’m greedy again. Sue me. But work for me. Work for my attention. At least pretend that you care about me as a customer. They had already shown me that they won’t do that, so I had resolved myself to finally cancel and hop ship to Verizon, whose phones do work during tourist season, and who have also had LTE in Pensacola for around a year(!). I was going to do it! This was the year! Then I saw these stories regaling the adventures of Eric Slivka and Andy Zaky, so I thought to myself, “Hey, you’re no big-name blogger hot-shot on the Internet, but maybe you can make this work for you!”. I don’t have the same income I had last year; I’m still working at the same day job, but I’m back in school part time and working on side projects so I’m no longer taking on freelance contracts, which were a big portion of my income last year. I’d be willing to eat AT&T’s crow for a little while longer if it meant saving $300 up front1.

So I called AT&T. I told them I was interested in canceling my contract. And I told them why, too; I’m going to buy an iPhone 5, period; their service is shit; you aren’t going to send me LTE any time soon, a headlining feature of the new phone; and you fucked me over last year when I tried to do this before.

At this point, I realize that I am being nothing but selfish in trying to get something out of AT&T. What I am basically telling them is “I am a guaranteed iPhone sale, but you need to be nice to me or you aren’t going to get said sale.” I am a good customer. I pay my bills. Sometimes I pay them late, and they get extra money out of me for no work and no cost! I’ve been with them in some form or another for going on 8 years. I’m the kind of person who is willing to buy a high end phone and put up with their ridiculous bullshit, as long as they will be nice to me, if just for five minutes.

So, were they? Well.

The customer service rep didn’t even bother transferring me to Retention. And their suggestion? Add a second phone line. They tried to pitch me in to converting my phone to a family plan with a 2nd line, and buy the iPhone with the 2nd line. The rep claimed it would only be another $9.99 a month. That is, once again, utter bullshit, just like their pitch to me last year. In order for me to add a line and get an iPhone out of it, I would have to add shared data, since the $9.99/mo applies to non-data devices and AT&T doesn’t let you buy an iPhone without a data plan.

I’ve had it with AT&T. I realize that Verizon isn’t that much better, but I’m done. I’m done with poorly trained customer service reps trying to sell me things that aren’t real, I’m done with having a useless phone when I go in to Destin for mini vacations, and I’m done with being bottom-rung for new tech and infrastructure improvements.

I wanted to give AT&T my money, if they could have shown me that they cared. Even just a little bit. About a customer that wasn’t high profile, but who was still loyal.

They don’t.

I know Verizon isn’t perfect. No telco is. But at least when I sell my soul to the Red devil, they’ll actually hold up their end of the contract.



  1. I realize this is a ridiculous sunk cost fallacy, but that only applies to people who have a large enough amount of money pooled up to begin with that up-front cost vs. long-term cost doesn’t matter. I am not one of those people.