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May 5, 2010

Filed under: tech»mobile

As A Courtesy

Dear Valued Customer,

We hope you are enjoying your Smartphone! We appreciate and value your business and want to be sure you are aware of a change we've made to your account to ensure you have the best possible experience with unlimited data usage in the United States.

Smartphones are made for data consumption-surfing the web, social networking, email and more. That's why we require a Smartphone data plan in conjunction with our Smartphones. This ensures that customers with data intensive devices are not unpleasantly surprised with high data pay-per-use charges-just one low, predictable, flat rate for unlimited use each month.

For whatever reason, our records indicate your Smartphone does not have the correct data plan. As a courtesy, we've added the minimum Smartphone data plan for you.

Thank you for being an AT&T customer. We look forward to continuing to provide you with a great Smartphone experience.


Dear AT&T,

Thank you for your charming explanation of "Smartphones" and their associated data usage (I don't think the capital S is AP style, though--mind if I drop it?). Despite your carefully-worded letter, I must admit to some confusion: after all, use of my current smartphone has not resulted in any substantial data charges (that would be odd, considering I was on an "unlimited" data plan). Nor has the change from a Nokia phone to a touchscreen Android device resulted in a noticeable increase in data use--your own web site consistently placed my bandwidth consumption at around 100MB/month.

Which is why it surprised me to see that you had "upgraded" me from said "Unlimited" plan to a new "Smartphone" plan, which does not seem to offer any actual advantages to me over the old plan, unless you count the ability to pay you an additional $15 per month (perhaps you do). As a courtesy, I have moved myself to another carrier. I hope you are enjoying the carefree sensation of having one fewer customer!

Can we speak frankly, AT&T? I've been meaning to do this for a while anyway. After you complied in warrantless wiretapping of American citizens ("As a courtesy, we are secretly recording your phone calls, traitor...") it was difficult to justify doing business with you. But the organization of the American wireless industry, even after number porting legislation, is powerfully aligned with keeping customers right where they are, both technologically and contractually.

Consider: in this country, we have two incompatible radio standards (CDMA and GSM) split between four major carriers, each using a largely incompatible portion of the radio spectrum. Even on the GSM carriers, where the technology allows people to separate their number from a specific phone without your "help," the frequency differences mean they'll lose 3G service if they switch. The result is that moving carriers, for most people, also means buying a completely new phone for no good reason. Why, it's almost as though you all have conspired to limit our choices on purpose! ("As a courtesy, we have created an elaborate and wasteful system of hidden surcharges for switching service...")

And your industry's business models--well, I don't think you're even pretending those are customer-friendly, do you? Charging customers with unlocked phones the same premium as people with subsidized hardware? Long contracts and costly early termination fees? Text-messaging plans? This business with your capital-S-Smartphone plans is simply the latest effort from a wireless industry fighting desperately to be more than just a data-pipe provider, just like the ISPs. It's AOL all over again, AT&T, and it's inevitable. I can see why you're trying to squeeze your customers while you can, but it doesn't mean I have to be a part of it.

I mean, I'm not endorsing anyone, but there is at least one carrier who's starting to get it. They're offering month-to-month plans with no contract, and discounts for people who bring their own phones (or, more accurately, they're not charging for unsubsidized hardware). They're GSM, so subscribers can buy phones from anywhere--you know, like the rest of the world. And hey, they sold me an unlimited data plan (with unlimited text messages included, no less!) for the same price I was paying you before you "corrected" my data plan. It's still not perfect--it's the cell industry, after all, and frankly I'd socialize the lot of you in a heartbeat--but it's a damn sight closer to sanity.

In any case, I don't want to sound bitter. Thanks for letting me know about the change you've made to my ex-account. Good luck with that.


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