Shopping for wireless service: World's Greatest Consumer takes a cell phone safari
They don't call me the "world's greatest consumer" for nothing. Well, perhaps they do. But that's an entirely different story and only tangentially related to my decision to take a personal plunge into buying a new wireless phone and service. On July 23rd, I took four hours one evening to take a safari into the wilds of the cellular jungle. While this is a purely anecdotal account of my shopping experience of that night, I share it in the hopes that it will be helpful for those of you currently shopping for wireless service.
Preparation for the Virtual Safari
My guide for this safari was UCAN's handy-dandy free Mobile Phone Fact Checker. It gave me the ammo I needed to protect myself against confusing and misleading wireless companies.
I made a concerted decision to make the safari a virtual one, so I set up camp in front of my computer and did all of my shopping on-line. I didn't want to risk dealing with the mall "kiosk" salespeople who make used car salespeople look honest, by comparison. And in my personal crusade to save gasoline, I didn't want to consume unnecessary carbon driving to various storefronts all around San Diego.
My objective: to buy a "family plan" service for two people and to purchase two new phones. One of the phones had to be a Windows Mobile OS smart phone and the other needed to be one of those "cheapo" free phones. My budget for the Smart Phone - not to exceed $300. As for the phone service: I needed a two-phone plan for 700-1000 minutes per month and one of the phones had to have an unlimited data service that would allow me to access the Internet and e-mail via the smart phone.
At 6pm on that evening of July 23rd, I made a list of the four national carriers that serve San Diego: Cingular, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.
I created a small matrix below used to fill in the data that I got from each of the companies' web sites.
|Company||Family Plan Cost||Minutes||Data||Phone||Total Monthly Cost
|Sprint||$69 (power pack)||700||$25||$299 Mogul||$105|
|T-mobile||$59 (promotion)||1000||$30||$150 Dash||$89|
|Cingular||$69 + $45||700||$20||$299 AT&T 8525||$114|
Completing the matrix from data provided at the company web sites proved not to be an easy task. The plans were very confusing and the add-on cost of the data plans was even more confusing. As the "World's Greatest Consumer", there's a good chance that may have possibly figured out which plans were suitable for which phones-- but, truthfully, I can't be sure. A few times I availed myself of the customer service chat functions offered by most of the carriers-- but even they gave me bad info. (for example, Sprint said that I could add a $15 or $25 power pack plan to any of the family plans, but it turns out that wasn't available for the Mogul phone that I picked).
It took a few hours, but I finally was able to complete the matrix for the plans. The phones were a different animal. Choosing the smart phones wasn't easy. There were a multitude of options at each provider and comparing phones offered by differing carriers was a challenging task.
I got help from a few on-line sources. Cnet and PC Magazine offer good technical reviews of the various cell phones. I supplemented those reviews (and their associated blogs) with visits to epinions.com and to a few blogs that I found in a Google search. The overwhelming consensus appeared to be that the new AT&T 8525 was a very good phone - perhaps even more capable than the much-touted iPhone, also offered by AT&T. (I had no interest in the iPhone for reasons that many have identified and are nicely explained by Bob Rankin at http://askbobrankin.com/no_iphone_for_me.html)
Big problem with AT&T though - I won't use AT&T /Cingular until they clean up their customer service and marketing departments and improve the quality of their network. My personal and professional experience with AT&T wireless services is that it leaves a lot to be desired. Plus, the AT&T 8525 is no bargain......yet.
Verizon: Should I Stay or Should I Go
First, I called my current provider, Verizon. Their network quality is pretty good - perhaps the best in the West Coast. And their customer service is also quite good although noticeably deteriorating over the last year. Our office has been getting an increasing number of complaint calls about Verizon. To verify, I called their sales office three times and got three different sales/customer service representatives all of whom knew remarkably little. In the past, when I called Verizon sales, I had very knowledgeable, even savvy, representatives who helped me find the best deal available. This time around, it was a whole different world. I could literally hear each of the representatives reading their scripted screen data to me. I called three times just to make sure that I hadn't had one or two "newbies". But the inexperience was consistent. Moreover, when I explained that I was looking to leave Verizon unless they could offer me a competitive deal, each of the three said that their hands were tied and couldn't negotiate price, accessories or any other terms other than to offer me one free month of service if I renewed with them. Clearly, I wasn't feeling wanted by my current carrier. And I wasn't feeling like I wanted any part of them. OK, I moved on to the competitors.
Sprint To the Unfinished Line
So I looked at the Sprint Mogul phone. It's also gotten a lot of good word-of-mouth but it was just released in June, so it has an unproven track record. Was I willing to take a gamble on a new phone with all of its kinks, bugs and quirks? Sure, why not. And Sprint's service plans were more attractively priced than Verizon's. So I used Sprint's customer service chat function and a really nice lady named "Carol" confirmed that the plan and phone that I wanted to buy were both available and that my assumptions were correct. If only she had been correct. When I actually took the steps of ordering the Mogul and the data plan, I learned that neither the $15 nor $25 data add-on was available for the Mogul. That would cost $30 instead. OK, so Carol wasn't perfect. But she was very responsive to all of my questions, so I still like her.
I spent over 20 minutes going through the various steps to order. I gave all of my billing and financial information to Sprint and then pressed the order button. It hung up for about 20 minutes until finally I got a screen showing me that everything was in order and that all I had to do was approve the details and the order would be processed. I perused and then pressed.........only to be greeted by a screen saying that there was a technical error that prevented them from processing the order. It gave me a phone number to call. I did.....but was on hold for almost 30 minutes until I gave up and chose to try again in the morning.
The next morning I was greeted by a typically idyllic San Diego morning; the sun was out, the breeze was cool and the birds sang almost perfectly in tune. I called Sprint's on-line service number only to be told that technical difficulties were preventing them from taking calls at this time...., oh and goodbye. Click! Not to be deterred, I called a different Sprint number that I found on the Net. After exactly 27 minutes I finally got a harried CSR who confirmed that things were very busy and lots of orders were not being processed accurately. I asked her to check to see if mine had gone through. After waiting another 5 minutes on hold, she returned to tell me that it had not been processed and that I'd have to start over.
Oh really? Take another two hours to buy service from Sprint? Not this cowboy. I moved on to greener pastures.
T-Mobile to the Rescue
My last option was T-Mobile. Their new Dash smart phone was highly regarded by most of the Netizens who weighed in at the Blogs. Cnet.com liked it as well. It may not be as sophisticated as the Treo, but it offered a lot of the functions I desired for the price. T-Mobile's prices were also quite competitive. More so than any of the others. So far so good: lowest monthly service plans for 300 more minutes than the others and a good phone value. Coverage? I checked their on-line coverage maps and they claimed to cover the areas that I plan to use the phone the most.
I took the plunge. Signing up took all of ten minutes. No glitches. No hang-ups. No technical difficulties. The order was confirmed immediately. Wow! I'll let you know how things work out within 14 days, as that is how long I have to test out the service and phone during T-Mobile's trial period.
It immediately sent me a very cute, lightweight PDA phone called the "Dash". For such a diminutive piece of hardware, it packs a lot of punch; it is as functional as most of the higher cost PDA's offered on the market. Nice work, TMobile! (or actually, HTC -- the foreign manufacturer who appears to be producing most of the new PDA's on the market)
The TMobile CSRs who I call when I have some questions are infalliably helpful and cheerful. Activation is easy and I'm up and running in no time. Is it really this easy? Uh, regrettably no. Coverage is an issue. I can't get coverage in much of my house and even some spots on the San Diego freeways seem to be iffy. (any other T-Mobilers lose coverage going over the Coronado Bridge?) In one memorable event, I misplace my phone in my house, so I decide to use the ages-old trick of calling the phone and following the ring. BUT THE TRICK DOESN"T WORK! I can't hear the ring. More infuriatingly, the calls to my own cell phone get transferred to voice mail after the first ring! ARRRGGHHH. Turns out, the phone was in a spot in my house where there was no coverage, so it was inactivated. I spent a good hour searching for that phone. (OK, my wife did finally find it....let's not go there)
This wouldn't do. I couldn't have a phone/PDA that got lost, couldn't be found and wouldn't work in my home -- let alone some other important places. T-Mobile was so promising and I so wanted to use this very friendly, efficient company. But I had to go back to the drawing board.
The Runners-Up Go Head-to-Head for My Business
Well, I already had Verizon. It's good but they weren't that excited to keep my business and their new PDA's didn't excite me much. Might as well try them call. Went online and ordered the AT&T 8525 and Sprint Mogul. They'd have to go head-to-head for my affections and business. Let the Mobile Match begin!
AT&T shot out to the lead by getting me the phone within three days. Took Sprint six days to get me the phone. First round, AT&T.
The AT&T 8525 is a sweet little PDA and decent phone. It isn't small, but not uncomfortably large or heavy. In fact it felt just right. I had some problems downloading files onto it, but the AT&T CSRs were very, very helpful. In fact, they couldn't figure out the problem either so they connected me up to the technicians at HTC (yeah, them again.....they make the 8525 as well) It all worked out and the AT&T CSRs were pretty good -- and I didn't have to wait too long to get them. I spent a week in San Francisco with the AT&T 8525 and it worked like a champ. No problems. Decent coverage. Second round, AT&T again.
I returned to San Diego and opened up the Sprint Mogul. It too, is a cute phone......wait a minute. It looks just like the 8525. Darn, if HTC doesn't make the Mogul as well. It is almost identical.......with a key on the "almost". It is a bit more lightweight because the casing is a lighter-grade plastic than the 8525. It feels fragile, compared to its AT&T cousin. The features are pretty much the same, but I don't like the difficulty with the voice commands. I check to see if the phone works and it isn't receiving incoming calls. I call Sprint on a Saturday afternoon and it takes a full 15 minutes to talk to a CSR. She is very friendly and tells me just to reboot the phone and try again. I do. It does. But 15 minutes to talk to a CSR on a fragile copy of the 8525?!?!!! Third round, still AT&T.
So I took both contestants on the road. The 8525 performed like a champ. Service in San Francisco and Utah was excellent and the phone worked well. Alas, the Mogul didn't fare as well. The Sprint coverage appeared to be more limited than AT&T and the Mogul performed well but seemed to be a poorer cousin of the 8525. The decision wasn't a hard one -- I found in favor of the AT&T 8525. What I didn't know about Sprint I soon discovered when I attempted to return the Mogul.
Sprint's Dash to Oblivion?
Perhaps the most revealing and disturbing part of the entire phone testing experience was the process of returning the phone to Sprint. Now, I'd already had one experience with T-Mobile and it was quite nice except for getting a credit card refund for the phone. The company accepted the phone back, did not bill me for my usage and ultimately credited the initial cost of the phone back to my credit card (it took a few weeks and a frustratingly long phone call, but it finally happened). The Sprint experience was a completely different experience; it was hellish.
First, I called the number that Sprint provided and found myself speaking with someone in some distant land whose command of the English language was sorely lacking. I wanted to use sign language because English wasn't working, but I persevered. It took about 26 minutes to complete the process by which the CSR sent me a cancellation form that would allow me to bring the phone to a local Sprint-owned retailer and return the phone. Little did I know that it'd get much worse.
I dutifully brought the phone to the local retailer. After an approximately 30 minute wait to talk to a sales representative, I spent another 20 minutes going through the return process with him. He was quite personable and diligent but explained that Sprint's sales system didn't allow him to actually cancel the service. He could take the phone from me but I'd have to call Sprint again to actually cancel the service and stop the billing. He was very frustrated with Sprint's antiquated billing system and apologized repeatedly for the hassle. It is was, indeed, a hassle. I had to call Sprint again and, after a 15 minute call I was assured that I'd be credited within 72 hours. OF COURSE, that didn't happen. And I'm still trying to get that credit.
I finally got the check from Sprint, but it took the better part of three months, two letters and a number of phone calls. The depth of Sprint's customer service deterioration was remarkable. Since my experiment, Sprint fired its CEO and much of its upper executive echelon and brought in a new CEO who claims he really wants to turn around his company. Based upon the continuing complaints we get about Sprint, he may well be trying to steer the Titanic. We wish him the best, but still suggest that customers with weak stomachs and little appetite for confusion should continue to avoid Sprint.
My service with AT&T/Cingular has actually been surprisingly OK. Service interruptions have been minimal. Coverage has been adequate. The AT&T 8525 appears to be a solid phone with the only glitches being a very weak battery that has effectively died after just one year of use and a penchant for the Internet Explorer software to disable itself every few days. So I have to reboot the phone at least once a week to use the web browser on the phone. Oh, one other thing, dealing with AT&T-owned retail stores has been a horror show; I've visited three in the last few weeks and have found one with no less than a 30 minute wait.......and all I want to do is replace the dying battery in my phone.
T-Mobile appears to be offering some new services and phones that are getting good word of mouth. But their prepaid cell phone service has a really troubling billing policy that will land this company in trouble very soon.
Cricket and some other small regional competitors appear to be surviving, but with the economic downturn, it's unclear whether they'll be able to hang on......or even flourish in a world of economically stressed households. Stay tuned!