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Luke Wilson’s War

BOZEMAN, Mont. – I’ve been following with interest the AT&T and Verizon map wars. From my own personal experience, it’s a fascinating exercise in disingenuous marketing. For AT&T, possibly more so, as I believe its map commercials are egregiously misleading.

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.

Approximately one month later, AT&T began sending notes to my wife, making it known that they wanted to shut the data access off. We were consuming too much data, they complained. I called AT&T’s customer care and they informed me that, according to the iPhone Terms of Use, they reserved the right to turn off the data access to the iPhone whenever they want.

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.

kaps 12/5/2012 | 3:51:53 PM
re: Luke Wilson’s War

This whole maps brouhaha could be solved if the current bill before the Senate makes it through committee and the floor -- the bill that will require mobile operators to provide an inventory of their spectrum and where it is being used. Then we may actually get some real clarity over where there is service, and where there isn't service. Expect the telcos to fight that bill harder than the Saints pounded Tom Brady and the Pats last night.


Does anyone else out there think the current advertising for mobile plans in the U.S. is so shady it deserves a gubmint look-in? I mean, would you buy milk if the only guarantee you got was that "It's the best milk ever!" but no data to show whether it came from cows, goats or was industrial waste? I know the distaste for more regulation in matters telecom, but it's getting a bit out of hand, no?

kaps 12/5/2012 | 3:51:53 PM
re: Luke Wilson’s War

This whole maps brouhaha could be solved if the current bill before the Senate makes it through committee and the floor -- the bill that will require mobile operators to provide an inventory of their spectrum and where it is being used. Then we may actually get some real clarity over where there is service, and where there isn't service. Expect the telcos to fight that bill harder than the Saints pounded Tom Brady and the Pats last night.


Does anyone else out there think the current advertising for mobile plans in the U.S. is so shady it deserves a gubmint look-in? I mean, would you buy milk if the only guarantee you got was that "It's the best milk ever!" but no data to show whether it came from cows, goats or was industrial waste? I know the distaste for more regulation in matters telecom, but it's getting a bit out of hand, no?

jreacher 12/5/2012 | 3:51:52 PM
re: Luke Wilson’s War First, my Verizon Wireless has always worked in Bozeman. On the mountain, too.

Secondly, the last thing we need is more government intervention in cell companies. Has ANYTHING the government gotten into worked out?

Wake up America!
montanaguy 12/5/2012 | 3:51:52 PM
re: Luke Wilson’s War

You may be in for some relief, as I understand ATT is acquiring Alltel in Montana. This may result in better coverage for you. Don't count on it, though, as carriers seem to invest in Montana only when forced to do so. I'm kind of amazed your iphone works at all in Montana.

Scott Raynovich 12/5/2012 | 3:51:51 PM
re: Luke Wilson’s War

I asked AT&T about the Alltel acquisitions and they led me to believe that with the acquisition, regulatory review, operational issues, e.t.c., it will be a long time before that shows up in the form of improved coverage. Probably at least another 6 months.

Scott Raynovich 12/5/2012 | 3:51:51 PM
re: Luke Wilson’s War

Yes Verizon is the 3G of choice in Bozeman. It works great. I use it on my Verizon Blackberry. That's the whole point. AT&T says they have coverage here, but they don't. Verizon does.

Polder 12/5/2012 | 3:51:51 PM
re: Luke Wilson’s War While I cannot speak to the specifics of the iPhone, I do have a lot of experience with AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. My work often takes me to very rural areas of Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Kansas. I have Verizon and a Blackberry and am constantly amazed at the remote locations where I am able to access the internet and send/recieve emails. I often have to loan my phone to co-workers traveling with me who are on my companies AT&T plan. I switched to Verizon about five years ago from Sprint (using a Treo) after a very frustrating time traveling in the Dakotas. Verizon is not without its flaws but it far outperforms the competition with its data services. I only hope they someday will carry the iPhone....
kpaul 12/5/2012 | 3:51:25 PM
re: Luke Wilson’s War

I purchased an ATT phone as I was told I'd have coverage in Raliegh, NC. I got zero coverage (couldn't make a call) at both my house and (several miles away) my wife's work.  Both locations were within the city of Raleigh. Which, by the way, is the capital of North Carolina. I was told both of these locations were in between towers.  So, even in larger cities the non-3G coverage maps are not really covered where they say they are covered.


I took the phone back. Got a Verizon. I have great coverage at both locations.


Yeah, so when I see that Luke Wilson ad 20 times during each football game. I find I don't trust the guy....

Greenbone 12/5/2012 | 3:50:58 PM
re: Luke Wilson’s War

I was haveing iphone problems (Downtown Boulder, CO) as the popularity of the device and service began to groan under its own weight.


I'd see full bars of coverage for 3G, but calls wouldn't come in or go out. I'd be at work, no calls coming in, then go home and see a voicemail box full of urgent calls.


I complained, they gave me 1/2 off for 3 months of service, said they'd have a tower upgrade in November. The upgrade helped, but there's still periods where calls don't make it through. 


I'm forced to turn off 3G if I want to be sure I get all calls.


I applaud AT&T's effort of distributing an iphone app that helps customers identify service issues.  (perfect use of a device that is geo-aware and can transmit service problems back to the mother-ship.)


Sounds like the best bet though is to hack the iphone and get Verizon.

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