Commentary First World Problems Tech

AT&T doesn’t get it

I’ve been a pretty happy AT&T customer for many years. They’ve never been the cheapest (some MVNO, as of this writing), they’ve never been famous for their network (Verizon, probably), but for me they worked reliably day after day after day. Billing was arcane, but reasonably predictable. As long as I didn’t have to meddle with the account. Which I did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I could get an AT&T signal pretty much anywhere, except the Washington DC metro, and speeds were fast, and in general things worked.

However, every time we visited family in Chile I had to either pre-pay $30 for 300 MB of international data (which I can consume in minutes), $60 for a gig (still little, too much money), or borrow/bum/buy a local SIM, which is a hassle. A local SIM gives me a local number for a couple of weeks, and renders me unable to use my USA one. It’s therefore suboptimal, because I want to be able to get my texts and calls. So when T-Mobile started offering free international roaming (it’s not LTE, but apparently it works fine), I started paying attention.

Changing carriers is a hassle of course: hours on the phone; paying two contracts for at least a few days, if you want to keep your all-important number; perhaps, paying ETFs. Your phones may not work on another carrier’s network.

I don’t travel internationally that much, I told myself. Between 1 and 3 times a year. I can deal with the SIM swaps.

Then I discovered that T-Mobile had an agreement with my employer that would give me a discount on every line. AT&T just gives me a discount on the main line.

Then I noticed that my contract with AT&T had expired and there were no ETFs to be concerned about.

Then I discovered that T-Mobile has an actual, for-real, unlimited LTE data plan, and I started to salivate. There is one caveat: you can’t use over 5 Gb of tethering a month, which isn’t a problem for me. It sounds fair, because the T-Mobile price is decent and it’s an obvious “Please don’t replace your home internet connection with our cheap unlimited data” move.

So I decided to try and spent 15 min on the phone, and a few days later I had three T-Mobile SIMs in front of me. I own my phones and they are unlocked, so I simply swapped my iPhone 6 Plus‘ card and I had a T-Mobile phone. Of course, it worked. That’s a given.

Of the three SIMs, one’s unlimited; the second, for my wife, with 3 GB/month. She’s never used that much. If she goes over that… the connection slows down, but it doesn’t reach into our wallet. The third, for my dad’s sporadic visits to the US, 1 GB/month. Should be enough, but if he needs more, it’ll work. Just more slowly.

All of this costs less than my current plan on AT&T.

I quickly noticed that T-Mobile’s signal wasn’t as pervasive as AT&T’s. Much has been written about this, too. The short story is that T-Mob’s signal can’t penetrate structures as well as AT&T’s. Armed with the imperfect meter that is “the signal strength dots on the iPhone”, I walked and drove around and noticed that it fluctuated a lot more than AT&T. Notably, in my office I get 0 or 1 “bars” of T-Mobile service, and 5 of AT&T. This doesn’t matter as much, because of T-Mob’s WiFi calling. Basically, it routes calls over the Internet when connected to WiFi. It just works™, even on our corporate network.

When the signal’s good, the network is fast. This was only with 4/5 bars. Houston is a premier market for T-Mobile, and they have their best LTE here. It shows.

This is basically as good as I’ve ever measured on AT&T.

Even when you don’t hit their full signal, the network is fast enough for normal use: downloading email, web browsing, the all-important social networks, etc.

Did I mention that I get all of this for less money than AT&T charged me?

So, T-Mobile SIMs in hand, I call AT&T to see if they are willing to match some of T-Mobile’s terms. Not all; I didn’t think they would, but they do have a better network, and that’s worth something.

And that’s when I ran into a tremendously interesting phenomenon. AT&T has absolutely no clue of where things are headed. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

I talked to a very pleasant customer service representative. He lied only a little (there was no such thing as an unlimited LTE plan on T-Mobile, he said, despite the fact that it’s on their webpage, I bought it, and I have a SIM labeled as such). I’m not saying he accused me of lying, just of being misinformed.

of unlimited data.

I guess the “of unlimited high-speed” part is a hallucination, then.

I owed them money for the iPhone 6+ on installments, he said. No, I don’t; I bought it on AT&T Next, true, because they wouldn’t sell it retail at launch. I paid it off entirely shortly thereafter and promptly unlocked it.

No matter, a few lies won’t deter me. Is AT&T willing to throw me an international data bone remotely comparable to T-Mobile’s ($0 for unlimited, albeit slow 3G roaming)? No. I can pay $30/month for a ludicrous 300 MB, or $∞/kb for pay-as-you-go roaming. I may talk to the International people and see if they offer me a better rate, though. Why the ^&%$# do I have to do that, AT&T? Waste my time going from department to department, begging for a handout?

Are they willing to give me a larger data allowance for less money to come closer to the “unlimited” line I care about?


What I didn’t expect, and what shocked me, was that they tried to persuade me to lower my bill by switching to a lower data plan. “You only use 3 GB/month on average“, the rep said. You don’t need a big plan. I can lower your bill by lowering your data allowance.

Silly, silly rep. I’m fortunate and privileged enough. I don’t care about $10 a month for the plan. I also know statistics. An average is a bad way of looking at this. I use a lot of data when I travel nationally, and I don’t want to pay $10/gig in overages. Because I’ve been known to download Linux distros over the phone.

I care about the game-changing potential of unlimited data everywhere.

I want to give the phone to my kids on a car trip and let them use Netflix for hours on end. I want to stream music, and Hulu+, and Amazon video, and one day HBO, as much as I want. I want to download apps with impunity. I want to FaceTime/Skype/Hangout/whatever is fashionable this month until I’m blue in the face.

The reason, clueless AT&T, I use little data is because you charge me insane amounts of money if I go over the line. So I keep myself in check, and use as little as I can by default instead of as much as I buy. I don’t have the time, patience, or inclination to micromanage data use. I’ve got a lot more interesting things to do with my time. I’m therefore unlikely to stream Netflix regularly, or to really put the phone and your nice network through its paces.

I guess I could buy a 200 Gb/month plan at… (checking website) no, oops, you don’t offer one. 100 gb seems to be the top tier, at $375/month as of this writing. I may be somewhat price insensitive, but I’m not an idiot, either. I’m not paying that. Paying AT&T’s overage charges if my plan is too small, on the other hand, is stupidly expensive too. ($10 or 15/gig? Why am I even required to know this??)

I want to do all these things without managing my usage. I probably won’t use that much data, for now. A few gigabytes a month. But maybe one month I’ll shoot a full-length movie on the phone and want to upload it in HD to Youtube, and guess what? I CAN NOW.

T-Mobile seems to be embracing being a “dumb pipe”, and by doing that they got:

  • A new customer with pristine credit, three lines, and that sets the bill on auto-pay.
  • Me to buy their highest tier of service… which I’d never do on AT&T.
  • For me to feel that I can finally use my phone to the fullest, without counting bytes here and there. That makes me happy.
  • You know what I do with companies that make me happy? I stick with them. See: Apple.

It’s an amazing and utterly obvious idea. Here, we’ll give you the connectivity you need to really use the amazing tool that a modern smartphone is. No, you don’t need to meter your usage. Just go. Enjoy. We’ll give you a connection; you can just use it. In most of the world. We’ll never try to bankrupt you. That’s a game-changing promise. And it came with a smaller bill.

So today I called T-Mobile again and ported my AT&T numbers over, ending a several-years-long relationship. I’ll miss the five-bars-in-most-places rock-solid network.

I won’t miss the lying reps, the nickel-and-diming, or the byte-counting. I definitely won’t miss those.