AT&T reminds you not to use your phone

My wife received an email this morning from AT&T that said in part:

Our systems have detected that you are transmitting a substantial amount of data while roaming in areas not directly served by AT&T. The Terms and Conditions of our data plans (including unlimited plans) provide an "off-net usage" allowance that is equal to the lesser of 24 megabytes or 20% of the megabytes included in your plan.

I was surprised by this, not only because I hadn’t completely read the terms and conditions (I subsequently did and it’s in there – they can go so far as to cancel my account if they don’t like my network usage – on net or off, voice or data) but mostly because our phones were registering that they were on the AT&T network in all of the places that we travel to regularly.

I called customer service and learned a few interesting facts: 1) despite the phone indicating it is on network, sometimes it isn’t (in our case the town where we spend many of our weekends turns out to not be on their network); 2) AT&T has a new policy of going after "abusers" of the system (the Ts&Cs aren’t new – their aggressive enforcement is); and 3) going after abusers means that if we continue to use off-net data services they will either cut of our data when we’re outside of AT&T’s coverage area or simply terminate our account.

I can’t be the only person to see the unbelievable irony in AT&T’s action. Not only do they have one of the lowest quality networks in existence, and a very limited network outside of the major metro areas, and aren’t actually identifying to customers when they are on network vs. off network (presumably to give the perception that their limited network is actually larger than it really is), and they are the exclusive seller of one of the most powerful (read: data consuming) smartphones, but now they are threatening to cut off our service for using our phones for what they were designed for. My wife summed it up perfectly (and I think reflects a sentiment that is widely held): "If they didn’t have the iPhone I would drop AT&T!"

Even more amusing was the fact that my call to customer service was terminated when the call was dropped (there are many many dead zones around Boulder). My wife joked that we should send AT&T a termination letter stating that we weren’t going to honor the contract because their network coverage was so poor.

I think AT&T is walking into a PR nightmare if they start shutting people off like this. It’s one thing to have a crappy network. It’s another to punish your customers for your shortcomings.

  • I'm not surprised. I live 4 miles from work, and there are no fewer than 3 places where I'm guaranteed to drop calls. I honestly think AT&T is turning into an insurance company. They are only happy if you never use them.

  • Chris Moody

    From the AT&T web site:

    “Our Mission

    Delivering a valuable customer experience is crucial to the success of any business. At AT&T, it's at the center of everything we do, every day.

    Our goal is to treat all of our customers as if they are our only customer. We do this by providing thoughtful, caring and prompt attention. Our focus is on:

    * Connecting people with their world, everywhere they live and work.
    * Driving innovation in wireless, entertainment and other communications services.
    * Consistently demonstrating a passionate commitment to customer care.
    * Listening to our customers and responding to their needs.

    If they treat every customer like he/she is their only customer, maybe they will build a tower near your “off network” location just for you! Either that or they will be forced to cancel the contract of their only customer which I have to believe will be very demoralizing for them. “Seth was our only customer, and we canceled him for using his phone too much”.

    • sethlevine

      love it – this comment made me laugh out loud!

  • greeleys

    AT&T for people who really only need a land line. Oh wait, you could use Vonage for that.

  • Richard Keck

    I have to blast AT&T. My AT&T Blackberry service is bad and getting worse in the Boulder area. My request for a “free” cancellation was denied. I'd switch to an iPhone – Apple are you listening – but that does not help. If you live in Gunbarrel, don't touch an AT&T contract. I dream about vacations where I'm off the cell grid frequently. But, now I just get to go home after work.

    • sethlevine

      i love that you tried to terminate for their lack of performance. apparently that’s only a one way street…


  • The ironic thing for me is years ago, I got TMobile to allow a free termination because I moved into a new home in Boulder in a dead zone. I went to AT&T which was marginally better. Now, it has gotten so much worse.

    I complained to 9News, and apparently so did enough other viewers that they did a story about it:

    Then it was really funny to see Conan make fun of AT&T. He said the iPhone was being launched in China with WiFi disabled per government regulations. And that high-speed access was already disabled in the US per AT&T's network!

  • Neil B.

    Seth — This enforcement actually started several years ago under Cingular, and there's a good story behind it. I was attending school in a rural area of South-Central Michigan and was consistently “roaming,” though there were no charges because I was on a national plan. In Feb. of 2006 I received a letter in the mail informing me that Cingular was cancelling my contract due to roaming use >50% of my talk time. There was no charge, but they politely informed me that I was no longer a Cingular customer.

    What had happened (which I learned from a family member working inside Cingular at the time) was that the then-CEO of Cingular was hosting a Christmas party at his home in Texas, and all his friends, of course, were showing off their spiffy Cingular phones to him. He noticed that his home was in a roaming area, and suddenly it dawned on him that every single person there was costing his company an incredible amount of money in network charges, and immediately started ordering the beancounters to enforce the ToC concerning roaming usage.

    Hopefully this sheds a little light on the situation!

    • sethlevine

      that’s a great story neil. thanks for sharing it. still, i find it ironic that a company that signs an exclusive deal with the best data device on the market and constantly pushes their “nationwide” service plan is effectively punishing users for how shitty their network is. i understand the economics of it, although i’m not certain at&t has consider the impact of the negative pr on their business.

  • Jeff K
  • Mat W.

    I would also imagine that AT&T was not fully prepared for what the iPhone was going to do to people's usage of the data portion of their network. I know for a fact of two people (my wife and I) who didn't use the data side of things before our iPhones, now we rely on them daily if not hourly.