AT&T Hell

Summary – AT&T customer service gives you bad information, tries to fix it and can’t, then lies about how it is “impossible”.
Update summary – Twitter works!  AT&T twitter team seems to have fixed the remaining problem.
“We don’t care, we don’t have to.” – Lily Tomlin
When I worked for IBM one summer, I wore a tie every day to see if I could do it.
When I drove an RX-7 in Palo Alto, I obeyed all the speed limits, to see if I could do it.
Last month I gave up my iPhone, to see if I could do it.
My daughter wanted an iPhone, but she’s in the middle of a two year contract on T-Mobile with a Palm Pixi.  My iPhone 4S is in the middle of a two year contract with AT&T that started October 2011.  It had the grandfathered unlimited data plan, and would be up for upgrade eligibility in May 2013.
On December 26, I called AT&T to see if I could port my number out and get a new number assigned to the iPhone, so I could let my daughter use it, while I would keep the T-Mobile phone, but with my number.  My number started out life a long time ago as a Verizon landline, with the number sequential to our home phone, so I am attached to it.  It is also on all my business cards and in countless contact lists.
AT&T said “sure”, when you port the number out, we’ll assign a new number to the iPhone and the contract will remain unchanged.
Life was good!  The daughter is happy, and I have a phone that is, um, interesting.  I also have an iPad, so don’t shed any tears about that!
A week or so later, we notice that the bill is $400ish.  There is an early termination charge on there!  You can’t actually figure out what the charge is from the online presentation.  You have to hunt up the pdf and look at the image of the printed bill.  This is a phone company, they know how to print phone bills, not how to build websites.
On the phone with customer service.  “When you ported out the number, that cancels your contract, and you get an early termination fee. Then you added a new line with new contract dates.”  I explained my call on the 26th, and the agent said, oh, well I can waive the early termination fee and make the contract be as it was. The only thing I can’t do is preserve the unlimited data plan.  So now the phone is on the 3GB plan.   I thought about balking, that unlimited plan made me feel like an old-time iPhone user, more privileged than the unwashed masses, but really, my usage is about 250 MB per month.  The iPad has a bigger screen.  So I let it slide.
A few days later, a website check showed the fees gone.  I noticed that the upgrade availabiltiy wording was different for this phone than for the other iPhone line, which also started October 2011, but decided to wait to see if other changes would catch up before calling.
A few days later, no change.  Called and learned that the second agent had waived the fees, but not fixed the contract dates.  I was assured that all would be fixed, and notes put in the account.
A few days later, no change to the upgrade language.  On calling, I was told that the contract would expire October 2013, as expected, but the upgrade eligibility date was July 2014.  What does that even mean?  After the contract is over, I can just create a new line, with a new contract and phone, and port the number!  It makes no sense to have an upgrade eligibility after the contract expiration.  Anyway, this is just stupid.  I explained that I had been told “the contract would be as it was” but the agent said there was just no way to change that in his system, the upgrade eligibility is tied to the phone number, not to the contract.
[By the way, this is also a lie, because, for example, if you are being stalked, you can request a new number and get it without any such collateral damage.]
I asked for a supervisor, who said
This should never have been allowed in the first place.  You can’t port out a number and keep the contract. It is our number.  The agents who tried to “fix” it for you went way outside our policies and made it worse.  What they should have done to correct their original mistake was to port your number back in, not to try and fix the contract. It can’t be fixed, it is impossible to change an upgrade eligibility date. It is tied to the phone number.
The supervisor said there were no higher supervisors to talk to, and no physical mail address to send a complaint to.
Well.  This supervisor was certainly polite, but either was really unable to fix the problems that AT&T created, or unwilling to do so.
At the moment, I have a nice iPhone, with a pleased daughter, but I am not pleased.  I made a perfectly sensible request.  I was told “Yes, of course you can do that” and now the account is scrambled beyond belief.

  •  iPhone 4S, 14 months into a 24 month contract.
  • I ask to port out my number, and get a new number assigned to the phone,without contract changes.  I’m not paying them any less, I am not getting a new phone, just changing a few bits in a database somewhere about what is the number!
  • AT&T says “yes”
  • AT&T charges an early termination fee, an activation fee, cancels my unlimited data plan, restarts the 2 year contract, and resets the upgrade eligibility data.  I am not even angry about the activation fee, they deserve some fee for the work.
  • I complain.  AT&T waives the early termination fee, promises to fix the contract, but doesn’t
  • I complain.  AT&T promises to fix the contract, but only fixes the contract termination dates, the upgrade date is now 9 months after the contract expires.
  • I complain.  AT&T says “impossible to fix”
  • AT&T supervisor says “impossible to fix, and there is noone higher than me to ask”
The only thing that an upgrade date after contract expiration might mean is that AT&T would refuse to unlock the phone until it is 2 3/4 years old.  That would piss me off, but I don’t even want to ask them right now.

And by the way, the iPhone battery doesn’t work as well as it used to, and that 18 month upgrade was starting to look pretty attractive!  Instead, I will likely have to pay Apple $79 to fix it.  At least that is cheaper than the $99 Applecare I forgot to get, if nothing else goes wrong with the phone.
Now I am not a phone company marketing person, but I think I understand the essential economics of subsidized phones.  AT&T gives a substantial discount on the phone in trade for a contract commitment.  In fact, this is still a worse deal for the customer than buying an unlocked phone on a carrier with cheaper plans, like Virgin or T-Mobile, but AT&T doesn’t discount the monthly charges if you bring your own device.  That is just another way to screw the consumer.  So with AT&T, you may as well get the subsidy if you don’t mind sticking around for two years.  And they really make their money back so quickly that they let you upgrade (and restart the two year clock) after 18 months.
This is a simple deal – AT&T discounts the phone, I promise to keep paying their (high) monthly bills for two years.  This has nothing to do with the phone number!  Changing the number has utterly no effect on the money flows.
What about that number?  AT&T says it is their number, they can attach whatever they want to it.  But that is not true.  I had the number with Verizon. I ported the number to AT&T, I ported it out.  The FCC has “local number portability”.  The numbers are managed by CLECs (I think that is the term of art for phone companies) but they really can’t be taken away from users except for some arcane technical reasons.
What has happened here?  It cannot be “impossible” to fix these sorts of problems.  There may be software limitations, but those are fixable.  Or they could merely write a note to themselves saying “Yes, the system says this contract runs until July 2014, but when the customer asks, in May 2013, for an upgrade, just waive the fees.  And when the customer cancels the contract in October 2013, waive any cancellation fee.”
Instead, they’ve spent a lot of money on customer service phone calls, which are not cheap. They’ve enraged a long-standing customer who has alternatives. They’ve provided more information to the entire internet about just how bad their service and systems are.  There is no good result for AT&T here. They’ve not gained any income. They haven’t kept control of their precious number. They may well lose me as a customer come October.  (That Nexus 4 on T-Mobile is looking pretty good, or a nice unlocked iPhone 5S or whatever.) And they are defending positions and policies that make no sense competitively or economically.
I’m not sure of the next step for me.  Probably I will tweet the URL of this blog entry to @ATTCustomerCare.  At this point, AT&T can fix the problems, or they can provide me a source of continuing amusement.  There’s a rumor that sometimes people get results by writing the CEO.  At a minimum that will cost them even more money to deal with my letter.
UPDATE – I tweeted this URL to @ATTCustomerCare and they actually answered, got me on the telephone, and fixed this, well enough.  Which is to say they can’t fix it in the database, but they’ve added a special note telling other folks to honor an upgrade request on or after the correct date.  Works for me.  (1/16/2013)
You can sort of understand how enterprise software can become unwieldy, to the point where it seems easier to correct software problems and poor specifications by adding layer upon layer of special fixes and exceptions and end-runs, but it is not good for customers or efficiency to do it that way.

One thought on “AT&T Hell”

  1. The Better Business Bureau also often gets pretty good results. If they care about their record, you can cause them a fair bit of agony with very little effort on your part, and you might even get things fixed appropriately…

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