I’m honestly not entirely sure why I’m writing this post: the fact that large corporations suck is not a surprise to anybody, and neither is the fact that large corporations try to coat themselves in a veneer of human interactions and come off looking even worse once you get beneath that veneer. Still, venting can sometimes be cathartic, and it was a little weird watching how my brain behaved during this process.
Anyways: I’d been an AT&T cell phone customer for several years now; they’d been okay, but a little more expensive than I liked, and I didn’t appreciate them providing bad coverage in my house and then charging me money to buy a device to fix that problem of theirs. Also, the idea of subsidized phones doesn’t sit right with me: there’s no way a company is going to structure that to be beneficial to us even if we did want to replace our phones every two years, which we don’t.
So I was ready to make a switch, and when I started to hear interesting things about T-Mobile, I looked into them. The main point on their side is that they’re actively distancing themselves from the subsidized model, but actually I think the trigger that got me actively considering them was the fact that they give you free 2G international data: international rates have always been something that frustrated me. Though that in itself is a sign that my brain is behaving oddly: we don’t go on international trips very often, we almost certainly won’t go on any in 2014, AT&T’s rates actually weren’t all that bad on the last trip that we went on, and I’d probably find 2G data frustrating in its own way. So I won’t exactly thank my brain for seizing on that as an interesting point: I can claim that it’s a sign that T-Mobile is trying to go out of their way to appeal to people by not jacking up prices on fringe stuff, but, well, they’re a big company, I shouldn’t treat it as anything other than an isolated financial calculation.
Still, it got me looking at their rates; and, indeed, their rates for us would be a lot cheaper than AT&T’s as long as we weren’t replacing all of our phones, which we didn’t have a plan to do this year, and that plan would include a data plan for Miranda. (She actually doesn’t seem to care too much about web browsing and what not on her phone, but she’d been grumbling about sending text messages with a number pad, so she liked the idea of being able to use her a hand-me-down iPhone as a phone instead of just as an iPod.) Our old phones should work okay (T-Mobile had added coverage in AT&T’s bands), their coverage map claimed that their service should work in our house, it seemed like a pretty clear win.
So we switched over. The woman who helped us in the store seemed quite helpful; the only worrying sign there was when I asked about signal boosting options in case coverage at home turned out to be worse than I expected. (After all, AT&T’s maps also claimed that our home got good coverage.) She said they didn’t have microcells; they did have something called “Wi-Fi calling”, but it only works with Android phones. Still, I was happy with the choice when I walked out of the store.
I was less happy when I got home, though: we got zero coverage inside the house outside of sporadic seconds of connection. (E.g. confirmation text messages about numbers being ported over took hours to arrive.) By the end of the day, it was clear that the situation was bad enough that it simply wouldn’t work for me: my work requires me to be on call every so often, and I need to have reliable cell phone reception during those rotations. I did some searching online, grumbled a bit on Twitter, and went to bed.
This was a second sign that my brain was behaving oddly: it took a surprisingly long time to go to sleep. Which is ridiculous: I needed to fix the issue eventually, but it wasn’t a problem at all in the short term, we just don’t use our cell phones as phones inside the house very often. (We still have a land line as well.) And while I wasn’t excited about going back to AT&T (e.g. I would lose my employee discount since I’d changed employers), that did at least provide a known workable fallback solution; and, in fact, I came up with a list of five or so options to explore. So, really, brain, this is not worth keeping me up for, it will be Just Fine if I think about it some more the next day.
The next day, I looked a bit more into options: e.g. T-Mobile doesn’t offer microcells that connect to the internet the way AT&T does, but in the past they’ve offered cell boosters from a company called Cel-Fi, and that company still sells them directly. (They’re quite expensive, though.) Also, the @TMobileHelp twitter account had responded with some advice. So I was still in the mind-set that T-Mobile was trying to provide good customer service; I clicked on the links they provided (yes, their coverage map claims that I should get “excellent” reception), and I went to chat with somebody online. That person set up a support case with me, saying that it should be resolved in three days.
Four days went by; still no coverage (not just inside my house, I didn’t get coverage outside my front door, either), and I hadn’t heard back from T-Mobile. So I went on-line and chatted again; I was told my case was still open, and it would be another three days.
I can’t remember the exact sequence of events after that, but it was the same basic pattern. I tried different methods of contacting them (online chat, e-mail, voice mail); everybody I talked to seemed friendly and wanting to help, but nobody ever followed up with me with a response, I always had to initiate contact. I was optimistic when I ran into somebody who said he’d be my “personal support person”; I never heard back from him, though, and the next person that I interacted with had no idea what this “personal support person” concept was supposed to mean. At any rate, this continued for a while; and this is where the whole “big companies trying to set up human interactions” thing falls flat. On an individual level, my interactions with T-Mobile employees were pleasant, and my instincts were telling me that the people I were talking to wanted to be helpful. But, on a systemic level, I got the exact opposite message: all of my requests were going into a black hole, no individual would ever follow through, and the system as a whole didn’t care about me at the slightest.
Eventually, I talked to somebody who said that their technical staff had looked into the issue, and that the fact that there are trees meant that I wouldn’t get good coverage. I’m not sure why trees are supposed to be such a big surprise, or why their coverage map claimed otherwise in my area; and this was actually the one interaction where the personal veneer of helpfulness actively frayed, because the person I was talking to didn’t have anything at all sympathetic to say about the incorrect coverage map or any suggestions at all for workarounds. (E.g. nobody brought up this Cel-Fi option.) Which is, of course, the flip side of the disconnect between human interactions and corporate interactions: my brain was getting annoyed at the person I was talking to, but there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about the situation, and it wasn’t her fault either that the coverage was nonexistent or that the map was lying. (I’m pretty sure at least that I wasn’t an asshole to her, though it was doubtless obvious that I was frustrated.)
I spent a week researching options with smaller providers; a couple looked promising but I couldn’t convince myself that they would get me acceptable coverage. And here the peculiar nature of US 3G technology fragmentation bit me, because a lot of the most plausible-looking companies were actually subsidiaries of Sprint, but our phones wouldn’t work there, and part of the point of this exercise was to save money by not replacing phones.
So: back to AT&T. Which has no option for a cheaper rate that doesn’t include subsidized phones, and which had changed their plan structure so I couldn’t get my previous plan back, even setting aside the corporate discount that I was missing. But actually their new family plan wasn’t too bad; and it looked like I should be able to get a good corporate discount through Trinet? So I felt pretty good about switching back to them, and that’s what we did.
Which was definitely the right move: even without the microcell, their coverage at my house is significantly better than T-Mobile’s (I’m probably imagining things, but it seems like it’s actually improved over the last couple of months), and I got the microcell turned back on in short order. Also, T-Mobile’s coverage was noticeably worse than AT&T’s when wandering around town; the difference in quality wasn’t necessarily enough to make me want to pay AT&T’s higher prices if I could have weighed both options, but I was at least getting something for the higher prices.
But it turns out that the story didn’t end there, for either company. On the AT&T side: Trinet’s web site claimed that I should get a 15% discount from AT&T, but when I got my first bill, it was more like a 3% discount. Basically, the discount says something about applying to “eligible voice and data plans”, and the way my bill is structured, three quarters of it is a per-phone charge that isn’t eligible under the specific terms of that discount. I’m not sure how much of this is AT&T’s fault and how much is the fault of whoever negotiated / phrased that discount, but either way, it’s left a bad taste in my mouth. (Hmm, I guess I’ll mostly blame AT&T for that: I see phrasing on their web site that says that “For Mobile Share plans, service discount applies only to the monthly service charge for the Mobile Share plan’s data allotment and not on the additional monthly device charge(s).”, so they’ve chosen to structure their plans and discounts in a way as to make the discounts apply to at most a third of the total cost of family plan bills.)
And on the T-Mobile side: I never actually got a bill from them in the mail. (Yes, I’m old-school, my workflow still involves writing checks.) I never intended to sign up for paperless billing; I’m not sure if they signed me up for that unilaterally or if I unintentionally signed up for that myself when I was trying to get them to STOP SENDING ME TEXT MESSAGES EVERY FUCKING MORNING.
At any rate, I never paid the bill online because I still wasn’t sure if a paper bill was going to arrive; but once I switched away, I went to their website so that I could pay off the balance online. But, it turned out, they’d disabled my online account access when I switched phones, even though I had a balance due. Which was annoying, but I called them up and was told I’d get a bill in the mail, so I didn’t worry about it too much.
I did indeed get a bill in the mail over the Thanksgiving weekend. Except that it wasn’t a bill, it was more of a demand letter: as they put it,
Realizing that most often a missed payment is an oversight, this notice is a reminder that your account is now past due. Please mail payment today for the amount due to prevent collection activity on your account.
No, you assholes, it’s not an oversight: you didn’t send me the bill in the first place, you wouldn’t let me pay the god-damn bill on your website, I called anyways to make sure that I’d get a bill, and now you’re blaming me for it being “past due” and threatening collection activity? Fuck you; and fuck you again for calling me up about the bill today even though I put a check in the mail as soon as I got your bill.
Sigh. Interactions with corporations are rarely good, but it will be a long time before I want to have anything to do with T-Mobile in particular. They have crap phone service, they lie about what they provide, they don’t care about the fact that they are lying, they don’t have a system set up to allow their (presumably well-meaning) employees to follow up on concerns, they spam you with text messages, and their billing setup is a mess that they’ll blame you for. A win all around; I only hope that increased LTE standardization sets up more possibilities for competition in the US, so I’ll eventually be able to find some company out there that is reasonable…