Luke Wilson’s War
First some background: Both large U.S. mobile operators advertise maps of their coverage. Verizon has been running a series of successful ads showing that it has better coverage. AT&T protested that these maps were inaccurate and started running their own ads. Legal battles are potentially on the way.
I have experience with “the maps.” I recently relocated from the most densely populated state in the lower 48 states to the least densely populated state in the lower 48. While we were traveling across the country, my wife’s iPhone broke. She took it to the Apple Store in Chicago where they agreed to “upgrade” the phone for a mere $100. Seeing as it was broken, we didn’t see a better option. But note: The Apple folks didn’t mention anything about potential coverage issues, even though we gave them our Montana address.
The data dumps
Upon arriving in Bozeman, my wife discovered some flaky data operation on her iPhone. After checking the AT&T map on the Website, we were assured that there was coverage in the Bozeman area. The icon on the phone showed full coverage. We couldn’t figure out why the data access wasn’t working properly.
Why? I asked.
Here’s how it merges with the map controversy. The official AT&T customer service rep pointed out that that map on their Websites differentiates between 3G access via partners versus AT&T’s own towers. That distinction is not being shown on the current AT&T TV commercials featuring Luke Wilson, which appear to be running 58 times a day on NFL Sundays.
AT&T doesn’t like it when you access 3G data via its partner towers. They get charged what they believe are exorbitant fees for 3G access via partners, so they reserve the right to shut you down whenever you try to do that. In other words: In many of the territories where AT&T advertises 3G coverage, the coverage is via partners – and AT&T doesn't want you to actually use its 3G data service in those locations, even if that's half the reason you bought an iPhone.
I ask AT&T: If you are using a partner whose 3G data costs are exorbitant and you know that it will lead to you shutting off an iPhone customer, is it honest to advertise that as "coverage"? I don’t think so.
The data police
After complaining to senior officers of AT&T customer care, I was routed to a mysterious call center in central U.S., a sort of data police station. Apparently there is a nerve center where AT&T tracks all the data usage of iPhone customers (somebody is watching!). When things get out of control, they warn you. If your out-of-control behavior continues, they shut you off, as if you are some kind of sociopathic iPhone data-holic.
After talking to a fine gentleman in this Arkansas location, he shared some metrics that AT&T uses to flag customers in its partner territories that are using too much data. I asked: “If we monitor this usage and keep it under the limit you just gave me, are we cool?” Yes, said the polite AT&T data-monitoring secret policeman. This assurance was accompanied by a lengthy legal disclaimer, which stated that, once again, if you read the teeny tiny print on the iPhone agreement, AT&T reserves to shut you down whenever it wants to.
It turns out the data limit was not so pernicious. My wife and I have been happily consuming moderate amounts of 3G iPhone data for the last month, without any additional threats from AT&T data police, though I’ve had to give up sureptitious consumption of NBA draft stats while waiting in the pediatrician's office. My wife and I have entered into the local iPhone data 12-step program.
And for the record: AT&T does not yet operate its own 3G towers in Bozeman. Luke Wilson, entertaining actor that he is, has been turned into quite a liar.*
— R. Scott Raynovich, formerly Editor-in-Chief of Light Reading, is the Editor and Publisher of The Rayno Report (www.raynoreport.com), which scours the Earth for investment ideas, scams, and business breakthroughs in the biotech, technology, and energy markets.
* Disclaimer: The author doesn't actually believe Luke Wilson is a liar. The author notes: "OK, somebody may have been feeding him his lines. But Bozeman, Mont., was featured as a 'postcard' in the AT&T ad I saw approximately 14 times during the Steelers-Ravens match Sunday night, which may have left me moderately bitter, especially because of my aforementioned 3G data experiences with AT&T, and the fact that I was secretly rooting for a victory from third-string Steelers QB Dennis Dixon, a guy that must have seen more intimidating zone blitzes than any backup QB this year and lost in OT." So there.