The article states that Congresses goal of 100 percent broadband access can't be met if big corporations aren't helped out. Helped out in this case mean's abandoning rural grandparents who can't afford $100 a month cable bill and simply want to be able to talk to their kids and police in an emergency.
Why on Earth do American corporations need assistance to do what is incredibly profitable. Providing broadband at huge monthly bills? Why is it that every other technologically advanced nation has 100 percent broadband, normally at cheaper rates, and big corporations like AT&T have to go to the government hat in hand for "help." This when they can't even provide proper service in the biggest city in the USA when they have an exclusive right to the iPhone and charge a fortune for the honor?
If AT&T isn't interested in maintaining land lines, they should spin off that part of their company and let someone else charge for POTS (plain old telephone service). I'm sure there are other company's that can make a handsome profit running that declining, but still profitable utility. But what does AT&T want? They want to continue to charge an aging customer base while neglecting service. They want to gradually cut off the less profitable areas, were people need the service the most, and keep the cash cows on life support while bumbling into broadband. Oh, and they want the right to tell grandma she has to switch to cable because they're shutting down her phone line.
Someone in government really needs to rap AT&T on the knuckles on this one.
Amazingly, there is no official statement from AT&T trying to explain what happened and what is going on. This is unbelievable for a major corporation. Something is seriously wrong with the management that a day after such a PR nightmare they have no official response.
It would appear that they don't want to admit to the real reason for cutting off on-line sales to New York, which is starting too look like a simple money grab. Reports are there were discounts available on-line that they didn't want New Yorkers to take advantage of over the Holidays so they forced them to go into the stores and pay more. That's sounds like the greedy AT&T we all know. Why get a dollar from your customer for tens cents of service when you can get a dollar and a penny?
The other possibility, that AT&T stopped making sales because it was worried its already overloaded network would get even more overloaded, seems less likely. I mean, AT&T shows little interest in really solving it's New York problems, and a brief sales slow down wouldn't mean much, especially if you can still buy the phones in retail outlets.
Regardless of the real reason, it's unbelievable that a publicly traded company of this size has no crisis management team in place to deal with these kinds of things when they hit the media. We already learned that with Operation Chokehold and the negative response to the floating of tiered pricing, but this has to be the worst example. 24 hours after a widely publicized news crisis and there's no official response? This moves beyond some idiot flacks and really speaks badly of senior corporate management. This company is headless.
This is unbelievable BREAKING NEWS. AT&T has stopped selling iPhones on line in the New York area and it's idiot flacks are scrambling to make sure the world knows they don't know what they are doing or why they're doing it. Here's a link with the full story:
When you're a paid AT&T flack, you get your weekly paycheck even as the empire burns down. Just keep looking away from the flames while you do your job. Remember that planted article in the New York Times that everyone made fun of? The one that said AT&T service was GREAT as measured by unverified sources in non-real world situations? Well, after AT&T flacks planted it two weeks ago, they were supposed to make sure it was repeated endlessly by other reporters in other publications as fact without any new information. After all, if bullshit is printed in the New York Times, it becomes beef stew for other publications to sample.
Of course, the real story quickly became what a joke the Times piece was, it was hidely ridiculed over the internet, it's "facts" exposed as lies, etc. And then Operation Chokehold came around and hogged the media spotlight with it's message that, as most people can tell in the real world, AT&T service sucks.
But now that a little time has passed, those AT&T flacks have gone back "on message" as if nothing has happened. And there are plenty of reporters and publications that are more than happy to ignore real news and print corporate fantasy.
AT&T is quickly learning that while it takes years to build a good reputation, you can loose it in a week. AT&T's New York iPhone service problems have now become a one-liner gag that doesn't even need explanation. Maybe it's time for AT&T to apologize to New Yorkers and promise to make improvements quickly. Cause this ain't going away on it's own.
UPDATE DEC. 21, 2009: Rabidly pro-Apple (and thus pro-iPhone) MacDailyNews blog has finally turned on AT&T after the SNL clip widely circulated. MDN has generally been defending AT&T as doing the best anyone could coping with the popular iPhone traffic surge. It continually dismissed (and under reported) Operation Chokehold. But now that it is becoming apparent that the tarnish from AT&T service endangers not just AT&T but the iPhone itself, today it finally turned on the service provider: "There comes a point where it doesn't even matter if what's being said is even true, it becomes a commonly-accepted "truth…" and you have to do something. There is a real danger to the iPhone in general that this perception that it doesn't work could assist the Google Phone. And I think that makes MDN's palms sweat. Here's the link:
As the dust settles after today's iPhone cyber protest here is an excellent quote from one unhappy AT&T customer on the Operation Chokehold Facebook page:
"Mend SternYes AT&T Survived, But now that we have this much press its time for round 2, hopefully they will take note and invest in their network, rather then spending it on sloppy ad campaigns…
AT&T had an opportunity when they signed an exclusivity contract with apple to showcase their network to a huge new customer base, and they squandered it relying on the fact that they had an exclusive contract, instead of seizing the opportunity to impress this new base, Like slumlords they decided to whore-out the network cramming in as many users with as little maintenance as possible, they completely missed the point and acted like an old crusty conglomerate, it may be too late for them to repair their relationship with their customer base…"
AT&T flacks, with the help of paid bloggers and others with a vested interest in the status quo, have tried to paint the protesters as just a bunch of crazy malcontents. But the statement above shows that many are very smart people with well thought out arguments as to how AT&T abused it's power, hurt it's customers and frankly the United States. As a nation we are last in the world in may key areas of internet service. It is a critical economic, educational and social issue, and AT&T must take at least part of the responsibility for the shameful state of our national communications infrastructure. Our major public tech corporations should be leading the world in proving the best service, not profiting as exploitive monopolies. AT&T should not be allowed to treat the United States like a banana republic and yet it does at it's own long term business peril. Meanwhile, customers have a write to openly and articulately protest as they did with Operation Chokehold.
Skeptics of Operation Chokehold pointed out early on that it's Facebook page only had about three hundred fans as of Tuesday. But the number quickly grew and as of today's protest it has 4,393. Which is not bad for a few days of promotion. It provides a pretty powerful mailing list to get people to write Congressmen for an Act II. Here's the link:
UPDATE/Dec. 19, 2009: The Operation Chokehold Facebook continues to gain fans even after the protest has finished. It's now up to 4,548 and still growing. And plans are being made for an Act II. Lots of interesting discussion about how to make even more of an impact.
As Operation Chokehold finishes, AT&T flacks are still "on message." They are working hard on getting magazines to explain why people should pay more for bad service through tiered (ie, more costly) pricing.
Of course, the argument that 3% of people use most of the traffic is simply an excuse to find ways to charge 100% of people more for their data services.
But lets pretend these statistics (if even true) where innocently discovered. Let's suppose we're in a meeting when the AT&T boss in charge of pricing is informed of this:
AT&T EMPLOYEE: "Hey, boss, we did a study, and guess what, 3% of our customers are responsible for 40% of our data traffic!"
AT&T BOSS: "What! That's outrageous! Charge them more!"
AT&T EMPLOYEE: "Wait, hold on boss. This is good news! Remember, we force people to pay $30 a month whether they use our data services or not. We're making out like bandits here! A lot of customers are paying full price for unlimited data service and aren't even using it much. It means a lot of customers aren't very tech savvy and don't use the iPhone for much more than making phone calls. It's just an expense status symbol for them. "
AT&T BOSS: "Still, people who use it more should pay more!"
AT&T EMPLOYEE: "Well, no. The whole point of offering unlimited service is so people don't have to worry about how much they use. It's kind of a social contract. If we wanted people to be charged per data bit, we should have done that to begin with. Actually, 3% using 40% isn't that high, I'm surprised it isn't even higher. We can't expect every customer to use the iPhone exactly the same. Especially since it's a leading technology. And we're going to look like jerks if we start talking about changing the deal. Especially when we have huge profits already. Remember, we are exclusive carriers of the iPhone and their are also anti-trust issues."
AT&T BOSS: "Yes, but those data hogs are tying up the whole network. We need to stop them."
AT&T EMPLOYEE: "Are you a frickin' idiot?! These are your best customers! You want to punish them, you stupid moron?! People who use large amounts of data are our most sophisticated customers, super tech savy, super internet connected and usually in high income brackets. They promote our product and are at the forefront of developing new uses for it! The people who aren't using much data are the sheep that follow them! If these people dump AT&T and go to another platform we're screwed!"
AT&T BOSS: "But if they don't stop using hogging all the data we'll have to build more towers."
AT&T EMPLOYEE: "You are a complete imbecile! How did you ever get in charge of a technology company! You have to invest in leading edge technology! Sometimes you have to take short term hits in order to gain market share! We have an incredible opportunity as the exclusive carrier of the iPhone to build out infrastructure and we're making barrels of money while we do it! How greedy and dumb are you!? This is not an issue of people eating too much at the buffet table. Bits cost almost nothing to move around once the infrastructure is in place! Do you hear the cable companies complain when people watch too much TV! That's our real competition! We should be investing in the future and thanking leading edge customers for using our products! These are the people who buy second and third iPhones and give them away as gifts! You really want to anger them?"
AT&T BOSS: "Well, I still think they're data hogs. And maybe we can raise prices, which is always a good idea. Have some flacks float the idea of tiered pricing and lets see what reaction we get."
AT&T EMPLOYEE: "ARE YOU FRICKIN' KIDDING ME? Are you not listening!? Why do you want to float around the idea of PISSING OFF YOUR BEST CUSTOMERS!? I can give you the answer! People are going to bitch like crazy and we'll look like morons again!"
At this point the only possible explanation for AT&T's media relations policies is a passionate self hatred that expresses itself in a desire to be publicly spanked. This column is devoted to AT&T criticism and I only briefly commented on the Fake Steve Jobs blog rant on AT&T because I found it long winded and not particularly funny. I didn't even mention the later post of an iPhone protest, a digital flash mob, because by that point my eyes were glazing over. (Though I've now linked to it on my update.) Fake Steve himself even moved on to photoshopped pictures of the real Steve Jobs with biker chicks.
But some flack at AT&T decided everyone on the planet needed to know about this mock "protest" on this minor blog for Apple geeks. Here's the amazing story of damage control efforts that involve spraying gallons gasoline:
Now, perhaps you might think I'm jealous Fake Steve is getting all the attention. But if all it takes is a blog post to get AT&T to rant about an "irresponsible" than trust me, AT&T Critic will get it's day in the sun and the traffic we deserve thanks to these idiots.
AT&T says that Fake Steve's post was a "pointless scheme to draw attention to a blog" as they drew more attention to his blog than they could have done with a Super Bowl ad. Of course, this gave Fake Steve Jobs the opportunity to respond again:
The truly sad thing for AT&T (which any good flack should have understood) is that this second piece isn't as long winded and focuses very seriously on a very serious issue. A cell company that has a monopoly on a piece of important technology (the iPhone) is proving very bad service for it's customers and over charging for it.
To stab the knife in deeper into it's own chest, AT&T also spouts that there is nothing funny about a mock protest on a service "that provides critical communications services for more than 80 millions customers."
Firstly, no one would hear about this protest if AT&T hadn't thrust it onto the national stage by responding to it. Second, Americans have a right to peaceful protect (I think it was in our service contracts) and that usually involves creating some discomfort for the people being protested against. But there is much more serious point:
If AT&T can't handle a protest that involves simply USING IT'S SERVICE, organized by a small blog (even if promoted highly by AT&T's own flacks), then why the hell are they in charge of such a critical piece of America's infrastructure?
What happens if there is another terrorist attack? Or some other significant event that could generate significant traffic? New Yorkers are fucked? AT&T has no plans for how to deal with huge traffic spikes (caused by obscure blogs)? We've gone from a boring blog post to what could be calls for a Congressional investigation. Should some Congressman pull the AT&T reps into a public forum and ask them what their plans are for dealing with traffic in a serious situation if they panic over what is barely a practical joke? And while Congress is at it, they should ask why AT&T's monopoly over the iPhone shouldn't be broken immediately.
Here's what AT&T flacks should have responded when asked about the Fake Steve Jobs Blog: "No comment. Off the record, what is a Fake Steve Jobs?"
If that didn't work, then "AT&T has the best network in the world. We can respond to any situation and have plans in place for events that might cause unusual traffic spikes. Other than that: no comment. Of the record, who cares about Fake Steve Jobs?"
But instead, this non-story has become a major story on the blogsphere and could easily leap off into mainstream. Bitching about bad connections has been raised to an issue of critical infrastructure. Seriously, AT&T, find the flack and slap his/her wrists and do better in the future.
Finally got around to a little bit of a blog revamp. And here's our new mascot, Dr. AT&T. He thinks your "coverage" and "service" is just fine. He's evil. (Dr. AT&T, like this blog, is in no way affiliated with AT&T and is simply a fictional character representation of AT&T's evil soul.)
It goes on to argue that there is really nothing people can do about it. They're stuck with AT&T or equally uncaring cell carriers until at least 2013. The problem is this kind of resentment doesn't go away quickly. People have long memories of being kicked repeatedly. 2013 isn't a long time away for AT&T to ignore it's need to turn around perceptions of it's service.
Remember what happened to AOL. It had a opportunity to lead America into the internet age. Instead it tried to use it's early advantage to set up a closed old style monopoly. Now it's just a relic of the quant old early log on days.
The problem is AT&T seems to be acting like the cell phone market is a mature market and it's time to try to milk the cow until it dies. Rapid changes in technology can wipe out AT&T's market share faster than it thinks. And once a downhill trend starts, as AOL found out, it's hard to ever reverse it.
Those all thumbs AT&T media flacks apparently worked hard to get a weird pro-AT&T article by Randall Stross into the New York Times. It basically blames the iPhone for AT&T's well publicized service problems (particularly in New York).
It's a strange article, because it really doesn't make much sense. The iPhone is to blame, but it works fine everywhere except New York and San Francisco. (It also seems to work fine around the world.) The best argument for this was made on the rabidly pro-Apple site, MacDaily News.
Randall Stross' transparently fake journalistic "investigation" leaves little doubt AT&T planted the whole thing. "I was astonished to discover that I had managed to get things exactly wrong…" he bubblers. I'm astonished this shit gets in the New York Times. These days the New York Times has less credibility than a tech blog written by a crazy guy in his basement (as this one is). The paper can pretty much be bought and sold to promote the corporate interests of it's advertisers. Of what value to New York Times readers was a piece telling them that they shouldn't blame AT&T for the fact that phone service in New York sucks? Where are the suggestions on phones that New Yorker's might consider as an alternative to the "faulty" iPhone? This is really embarrassingly lame "reporting." New York Times, this is news? There's no other real news in the tech world that needs covering? You just had to get out this info on imaginary iPhone problems?
The question to Uncle Bell is, is there a secret war going on between AT&T and Apple? Are AT&T flacks trying to plant stories to undermine the iPhone and focus blame on Apple for their problems? Or is the hope that Apple loving iPhone users will forgive AT&T if they think their beloved company is at least partially to blame?
Or does the whole thing just confuse the issue of poor AT&T service with the hope Verizon won't win the perception war?
One can only hope someone at AT&T is putting as much effort into just fixing the actual problem.
It appears everyone has instantly questioned this planted article. In addition to MacDaily news, blogger John Gruber takes the time to tear it apart inch by inch:
So let's review. AT&T flacks plant a story in the New York Times to try to deflect blame for their bad service in New York. Odds are, virtually no one would read the story anyway, even on the New York Times website because there is no story there. No there there.
But now Boing Boing, which has a massive readership that reads everything that passes by it's feed, covers the fact that the story has to be bullshit. So now the real story is: AT&T get's New York Times to lie.
And their service sucks.
Great work AT&T flacks! Way to keep the story of AT&T service sucking in the news!
Of course, this is once again a trial ballon to try to create another "net neutrality" creating crisis. The problem is a few greedy bandwith hogs. It's a corporate mentality that keeps trying to figure how to get more money for less service. They would like to create data tiers with various charges, and ultimately charge per bite.
This is very bad short term thinking. Yes, despite the claims in it's ads, AT&T can't handle all the usage coming from iPhone and there are lots of problems. The solution is to fix it, not to try to penalize your happiest customers by forcing them to cut back on what they paid for or charge them more.
He discusses that Verizon is the number one network and that Apple shareholders will be disappointed with a deal with T-Mobile. But I think he's underestimating what a game changer the iPhone is. The iPhone has been a huge success, despite AT&T's overpricing for service (and service problems). T-Mobile, while in third place, has a good rep as a bargain phone service and very good customer satisfaction. Throw iPhone hardware on top of that and it might be a smashing success and give AT&T some much needed competition. Verizon might end up being the loser by waiting on the sidelines.
AP put out a good piece examining the facts between the AT&T vs. Verizon telecom ad wars. They point out that the two former baby bells: "Verizon and AT&T are both pulling away from their smaller rivals, so instead of competing with Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA, they're increasingly focused on each other. "
Uncle Bell, however, would like to point out that they are engaged in what will ultimately be an irrelevant argument. As Moore's law kicks in to cell phone coverage, the debate will not be about who has the best coverage, but who provides the best overall service. All the major networks are catching up on providing good blanket coverage across the United States.
But which one will separate itself from the pack and offer some real game changing service enhancement for the internet age, the way that Yahoo did when it offered a comprehensive home page, the way Apple did when it created the iPhone or Google did when it revolutionized search? It will be that cell carrier that will be able to dominate the market at internet speed.
The article makes an excellent point. What AT&T needs to do, which Apple does, is explain WHY it's product/service is better, not just argue that it is.
This is a larger problem of mind think at the new AT&T which still thinks like the old AT&T. It thinks it can win any war in the marketplace simply by dominating market share and saturating the airwaves with ads, rather than focusing on offering something better.
Verizon's claims for better coverage are about as accurate as AT&T's claims of being "faster," generally it's a comparison of apples and oranges depending on where you live and how you test it. Speaking of Apples, it's interesting to note that when AT&T clicks off a list of four reasons why its service is better, two of them are because it is the exclusive provider of the iPhone. Most popular smart phone? iPhone. 1000 apps? iPhone. What exactly does AT&T have going for it but the iPhone?
AT&T probably had to respond to Verizon's claims and this isn't a bad one. The problem is, Verizon's ads are effective because people are very unhappy with AT&T coverage and speed. That doesn't mean they would be happier with Verizon, and if they have an iPhone they don't have any choice. While AT&T does have some annoying holes in it's coverage, most of it's problems with providing consistently good cell service come from the insane popularity of the iPhone and it's relentless hunger for data. One is tempted to cut AT&T a little slack in this area while it tries to keep up with the new iPhone 3Gs's sales. But ultimately, if it can't improve the speed of it's network over the next year, the charges of poor cell coverage are going to stick, and even Luke Wilson can't help.
Apple unquestionably made a deal with the devil when it signed on for AT&T to be the exclusive carrier for the iPhone. At the time, it really didn't have much of a choice. Making an exclusive deal with one of the major carriers was probably was the only way to get on the market and probably got them a better deal for what might have turned out to be a limited market product. (Of course, now it's the top selling smartphone by far.) Steven Jobs said at the time, and it made sense, that an exclusive deal was the only way to get the software and hardware properly integrated for things like random access to voice messaging. This is probably one of the reasons the launch of the iPhone was pretty smooth and customer satisfaction is so high.
Of course, the downside of this was that Apple had to play by at least some of AT&T's rules, and certain compromises were made. The one area where I suspect Apple put it's foot down was one flat rate unlimited data access to the internet. AT&T probably would have preferred to have a sliding scale, charging more for more use, because that's the way annoying way the company likes to do everything.
One of the areas where Apple caved in was in MSS messaging. AT&T not only charges an absurd rate for sending the cheapest and easiest data, 20 cents per 160 character MSS message, but on the last iPhone upgrade insisted that its customers pay a minimum of $20 a month (on top of their regular bill) for the honor. Oh, and if you don't agree in advance to the charge, the service is turned off so you can't get the messages if you suddenly change your mind. The contempt for the customer of this charge, for something that should basically be free, is so infuriating that I momentarily considered not upgrading my iPhone. I caved in at the last minute, but I spend every waking hour plotting to find a free alternative (Twitter anyone? Push e-mail?) to convince all my friends to switch over to. (Just a note, it's not only 20 cents to send a message, it costs 20 cents to the person getting it. That's a double rip for messages that were originally 10 cents back in the day when it was more expensive to send them.)
But since I'm paying out the 20 bucks a month anyway, and the 40 cents total per message to me and my buddies, my eye was caught by the announcement on AT&T's webpage that you can now send pictures and video through MSS. Now there's other free ways to upload pictures and video from your phone for friends to check out, but it's nice that AT&T has finally caught up with a little free upgrade to it's outdated MSS service…
Oh, but it isn't free. You see, AT&T wants more money. More money, more money, more money. 20 cents for a message isn't enough. If you want to send a picture or video, it's 30 cents. Here's the link:
Now, really, AT&T, are you that cheap? Are you that crazy? You're going to charge me $20 a month for a service that has numerous free alternatives (blackmailing me to prepay or not have access) and then charge anyone I'm foolish enough to send a the message to 20 cents for the privilege. And now you want 30 cents for sender and receiver?
MSS messaging is the land line of the digital age. It's a carry over from the early days of data communication. It's on it's way out. It's going the way of the dinosaur. Apple knew that, and allowed AT&T to rip some extra money from the less digitally savy and the lazy. AT&T got to keep charging an arm and a leg for something that now cost virtually nothing. Then AT&T got greedy and upped the stakes by forcing people to prepay monthly. Okay, keep your blood money, it was worth it for a flat rate for internet access.
But now, you want to make even more money off this outdated overpriced service? You're going to charge extra for pictures and video? Are you trying to insult us? (Obviously, there is no technical reason for this extra charge. The amount of actual data in a photo is a hundred times greater than a 160 character text message and a video is thousands of times greater than a photo. So the extra 10 cents has no relation to reality, it's just what AT&T figures people won't gripe too much about. Charging 30 cents for a picture just makes it even more crazy to be charging 20 cents for 160 characters of text.)
Politically, this is a huge mistake. The overpricing of MSS messaging is something that already is on customers, consumer groups and even Congress's greedy telecom gripe list. Why not offer pictures for the same price? Why not keep MSS messaging somewhat relevant in the future, rather than hastening it's demise, or risking government interference.
Now, I can see how some out of touch money crunchers at AT&T might think this is an issue of charging a little more for a new feature, just like they love to charge extra for any other feature they can think of. But what they don't understand is that people hate being nickeled and dimed like this. The internet never would have taken off so fast and so wide if there hadn't been fixed monthly pricing. If every new feature on the internet was an additional cost, it simply never would have grown into what it has.
The fact that there are so many free apps available for the iPhone is the reason people are willing to pay for SOME OF THEM. If every app cost money, the whole thing would have probably died in the cradle and if every app had a monthly charge, people would be tossing their iPhone's in the trash. Apple understood this and made sure there were free apps from the get go.
AT&T should be grateful it has this little annoying MSS cash cow attached to such a great phone that offers so many other features for one flat rate. It should either shut up, keep it's head low and milk it while it lasts, or lower it's price to something reasonable ($10 a month and 10 cents a message). For it to get greedy and try to think of ways to charge even more for it, is simply crazy.
If AT&T was smart, it would continually improve and add free features to MSS just to keep people paying that $20 bucks a month without bitching. Let anyone with the feature send pictures and video to a website for free. Connect it with Twitter for free. Let them get free coupons over MSS for discounts, etc. MSS could actually be turned into an WWW internet alternative (just like iTunes) for a base $20 a month. Why not let people send music clips over it free, or whatever?
The iPhone won't be exclusive to AT&T forever. Even if Apple doesn't insist on becoming non-exclusive, the way AT&T is going customers and the government will force the issue. So why can't AT&T see that it has a unique opportunity to create loyal customers and to build a technology base to compete into the future? Why rip off your customers so they are ready to flee the second they have a chance? Why not use this exclusive time to build good will?
Instead, AT&T is looking to make an extra dime anytime you want to send a picture of your kitten to grandma. Shame on you AT&T! And I'm not kidding.
So one last story concerning my history with AT&T before we move onto more current news.
After all my previous problems with AT&T led me to a weird mix of Vonage, cable internet and a single land fax line, I moved into a new office complex. Problem was, it didn't have cable access. There was only one choice for internet service. You guessed it, AT&T.
AT&T DSL was the only option in the building. So you'd think AT&T would be happy that I was forced to take their money for any hope of internet access. They were, but they wanted more. In order to get DSL, they required me to have a business phone line. No option on it. So instead of paying $30-$60 a month for internet, I ended up with $120 a month for both internet and a business line.
Pissed off, I relented, but every bill I got made me angrier and angrier. I never even used the business line and I have to say, getting rid of both bills was a least a tiny part of why I ended up closing my office and deciding it was easier to work at home. Naturally, when I delightfully informed AT&T I would no longer be wanting their business services, I got the usual offers of discounts, etc. and a push to keep the phone number to move to my next business. I declined.
But this brings up a good issue. Instead of trying to blackmail and cajole you into paying too much for stuff you don't want, why not offer something you do want? The AT&T rep on the phone was actually very nice. He simply had nothing I wanted. I admitted that I was annoyed with my previous service and pricing ("Would you like overpriced bad service for slightly less?") and that I was closing my office anyway ("Would you like to sign up for overpriced bad service at your next place of business?"). I did mention that I had an iPhone, and so I was kind of stuck with some kind of AT&T relationship whether I liked it.
And here was the missed opportunity: Why doesn't AT&T offer a Vonage like business service for iPhone users? Why couldn't the rep have offered to move my phone number onto the cloud? If I could have kept the business phone number (which a few people had) and had a Vonage style answering machine service attached to it, I might have considered it. Especially if I could access that number in some way easily through my iPhone and the internet. Of course, I wouldn't pay a lot for that service, maybe $20 a month, but we're talking about just moving around some bits. It shouldn't cost AT&T almost anything to offer such a service. If it had been $10 a month, it would have been a no brainer. I would have done it in a shot.
I would be great to have two phone numbers, one for business and one for personal, linked to my iPhone. AT&T has tremendous opportunities available to it to provide it's customers with innovate future solutions, but it seems focused on trying to milk as much as they can out of outdated services. In the process, I think they're losing a lot good will that they are going to need as telecoms race to the bottom in terms of offering cheap services.
Final note: Once I started working at my apartment the issue of internet access became a bit of a problem. Prior to that, I used my iPhone for answering simple e-mails, occasionally borrowed a connection from a local coffee shop, and went to the office when I needed full access. Now at home, I finally decided I would have to pay for a real internet connection. I figured I would get a cable connection.
But fliers from AT&T in my mailbox offered DSL for only $19.95. Wow, that was pretty cheap, and they said "No phone line required." So, AT&T finally realized that requiring a phone line was a mistake. But why did they need to say so on the flier? Obviously because there were enough pissed off former customers that they had to now explain you didn't have to pay for stuff you didn't want. Of course, $19.95 was only for a certain amount of bandwith, and the rate quickly climbed. What was stupid about this, is we know that in reality it costs very little extra for AT&T to give more bandwith, and yet they are so determined to try to milk every dime out of you they offer an low rate in hopes that poor people will pay that, and if you got more money they can charge you more. After all my bad experiences with AT&T they were last on my list of companies to get service from (unless forced to). So what did I go with cable?
Nope. While I was trying to make up my mind, my apartment started offering a Wi Fi connection for free.
So, in conclusion, the giant AT&T has lost $120 a month from me. Because it charged $120 rather than $60 a month I wasn't even willing to consider paying it $19.95 a month and stalled on getting internet service long enough to end up with it for free.
The reality is, the world is moving toward free internet access. Maybe these teleco giants, like AT&T will be able to stop it through their monopoly power and government lobbying, but probably not. More and more free internet connections are going to be available and less an less people are going to have to pay for service in order to simply connect.
Until that happens, AT&T can make a ton of money. But rather than spending it on trying to stop the inevitable, or bleeding their current customers dry, why not try to figure out what kind of services people will still pay for once there is world wide free access?
In this particular example, if AT&T had a Vonage type cloud service for business phone numbers, I'd probably still be paying it monthly for that extra phone number. What AT&T needs to do is start thinking outside the box. Moore's law is going to apply to the internet. The price of getting bits is going to get cheaper, and the amount of bits you can get is going to get faster. AT&T is at a crossroads. It can continue to think like IBM did at the beginning of the PC revolution, as a company that provides physical items (PC's or physical connections) and fade out of the market (perhaps focusing on business service). Or it can become the telecom version of Microsoft. Create software that can provide services that people need and will pay for, regardless of how they get access to them. Or become Apple and split the difference.
Continuing on the spotty history with the "new" AT&T that prompted this blog, to make a long story short, problems with my internet cable service forced me to get a land line again at my business fax number so I was once again brought into the AT&T fold. But says a lot that as a busy guy who likes to keep things simple and is willing to pay a little more for quality service, I felt it necessary to have a cable internet hookup, a Vonage voice line, and a single AT&T fax land line. It was not only a lot cheaper than letting AT&T provide these three services, but also slightly more dependable. Obviously the opposite should be true. It should be a snap for AT&T to offer all three much cheaper.
Anyhow, once I was forced back into AT&T's circle I got a call from a very nice AT&T business rep. She wanted to know why I only had a single fax line, and could she talk me into using AT&T for everything. I said I doubted it, and she said that regardless, she was going to be my new business rep. She would provide the personalize assistance I really needed to handle all my problems. I said that that sounded nice, but I was busy so maybe she could start by sending me her e-mail and I could get back to her with my needs.
Well, she said she wasn't allowed to use e-mail.
So this giant telecom company had a policy not to allow it's business reps to use e-mail to service their clients. Really? She asked if she could call me back some time when I was less busy and I said fine. But if you aren't even allowed to use e-mail, I doubt you'll every be able to help me much.
Half a dozen left messages later, with me scratching my head as to why I would bother answering them, and my business rep quietly disappeared. Now this was a couple years ago, and I hope AT&T has since loosened it's no e-mail policy, but the bad taste of it all still hangs in my mouth. It's hard to measure the long term impact of these kind of missteps on a huge brand like AT&T, but I think they add up.
Also, consider for a moment if instead of fighting e-mail, AT&T had an aggressive policy of using it? Wouldn't it be great to have an on-line business rep who you simply dashed off an e-mail to whenever you had a problem? Surely these could be handled by cheap off shore workers who could create a "virtual" business rep.
Of course, e-mail is problematic if your company relies on confusing customers to make money, or provides lousy service and it's really interested in fixing it. You don't want a hard copy digital paper trail with dates and times of every problem, every overcharge, etc. But long term, AT&T will simply have to get it's act together or it won't survive. It really won't be able to compete once everyone gives up their land lines and they have to rely on providing better service and prices.
The title of this post will probably become a recurring theme on this blog, because for a giant corporation that offers technology services, AT&T seems completely out of touch with how to use technology to service their customers.
Case in point came after I canceled my business land line in favor of Vonage. I got a call on my old phone number from an AT&T rep asking if I would reconsider. I patiently explained that their service has been insanely bad to the point of rarely working and woman sheepishly offered various discounts and incentives to go back to it. Even she seemed embarrassed when I asked why I would pay anything for something that did work, but she had a script she had to play out. Ridiculously, the offers involved various complicated discounts on long distance an other areas where AT&T had already lost any competitive edge against all sorts of flat rate service providers.
On one level, I can sympathize with AT&T's dilemma. They made (and still continue to make) a fortune off old land lines owned by old people afraid to embrace new technologies or too lazy to search for cheaper alternatives. There isn't a good reason to fix the old copper wires until they're ready to put in optical wires and over complete internet and media services. Moreover, they have to know eventually they're going to have to lower rates to be competitive with alternatives, but why do it now while they're still making money off these suckers?
That's simple economics, and I understand that. But what they need to stop is deluding themselves that it's smart to waste peoples time trying to delude them back into the fold once they've left. Perhaps they have some statistics that indicate that if they have phone banks in India call back old customers and offer flimsy discounts to return to service, they can milk those old cows for a little longer.
I think what they can't calculate as easily is how incredibly annoying such calls are and how much they soil their already tarnished corporate image. In areas where they know they are going to be upgrading to optical lines, I think it would be a lot smarter for them to just give up on lost customers, and spend that money for phone calling on speeding up the upgrade. Then when an AT&T rep calls, they have something real to offer and maybe a better shot they will be listened too.
When the "new" AT&T came back from the dead after a merger of baby bells (broken up from the "old" AT&T) I was rather surprised when they embraced what was a historic, but rather unpopular corporate brand. AT&T was not a name that inspired warm fuzzy feelings from former customers, like say Lego or Chips Ahoy. Nor did it even inspire much in the way of quiet respect for past glory, like say IBM or Xerox. The name AT&T first and foremost reminds one of giant uncaring business monopolies that really need to be busted up if there is going to be any progress for mankind. In fact, AT&T was the most famous example of a corporation whose government forced breakup almost immediately brought about progress and change. Kind of like when the Death Star exploded.
So when a bunch of baby bells with local monopolies merged with a third place national cell phone carrier, what kind of message where they trying to send when they choose to revive the name of such a famous corporate villain? We're they trying to be ironic? Where they trying for some revisionist history, kind of like the re-embracing of Stalin in Russia today? Nope.
Because it quickly turned out the new AT&T was determined to be exactly what was hated about the old AT&T. It would be huge, force itself into your life, charge too much and provide lousy service all because you'd have no choice. It would be reviled and not care, and use its bulk to push around both customers and the government. It would gain market share not by offering innovation, but buying up telecom landscape and raising the rent.
Once my local baby bell had been renamed AT&T my business voice, DSL and fax hard line phone bill went up, became more confusing, and service deteriorated. Of course, the local land line had been in decay for some time, and service had always been neglectful, but something about slapping a bright new AT&T logo on a ridiculous bill for long distance access seemed to add insult to injury. The phone would frequently go dead, repair men would take days to locate and repairs would only last for a few weeks. Repair men would openly discuss the fact that the infrastructure was completely decayed and simply needed to be replaced. But there wasn't anything they could do about it because AT&T was waiting to install high speed lines some time in the next decade to offer cable services. But that would be after congress passed legislation allowing it to bully it's way into that market. In the meantime, I was expected to pay high land line fees for lousy service to finance their lobbying efforts. I cancelled my service and went with a combination of Vonage and cable internet access which was also spotty and too expense, but somewhat less annoying.
In fact, the new AT&T's greatest immediate accomplishment was to make much hated cable service a little less hated and to hasten the death of traditional land lines with they monopolized in many parts of the country. Fighting net neutrality and cell phone service interchangeability is another area where they come off just a little better than people advocating the kicking of puppies.
Unfortunately, the reason monopolies need to be busted up is because they work so well. So when the iPhone came out, and Apple was forced to make a deal AT&T to get access to their cellphone towers, I was also force back into AT&T's spiked embrace. Once again, I was forced to pay high fees (20 cents per text message? Excuse me?!) and accept marginal service that borders on sadistic (Pay more to upgrade my phone than buy a new one? Excuse me?!). I've seriously considered giving up my iPhone just because I revile AT&T so much. But my iPhone is so cool, what to do?
Well, if you can't beat them, start a blog. At minimum, I now have a public forum to voice my complaints so my friends and families can be spared them. And, who knows, maybe AT&T isn't really evil. Maybe they are interested in trying to provide good service at a reasonable price, and maybe a little constructive criticism from an outsider is just what they need to improve.
Maybe, just maybe, I could make a tiny difference. After all, this isn't the old days of Ma Bell when there wasn't any competition. As much as AT&T tries to buy up and dominate rather than innovate, there are limits to it's power. If it doesn't improve it's service and polities, I really do believe it will not survive. And there have to be people inside that company that know that.
The internet does provide 15 minutes of fame to anyone willing to use it, and lucky enough to say the right thing (or wrong thing) at the right time. Who knows, perhaps some sparklingly insightful observation or criticism from this blog will be Googled by the right AT&T executive just as he prepares his powerpoint for a presentation. "You see, the blogsphere hates this…"
You, dear readers, can assist by adding your own brilliant comments, linking to this blog and feeding me any insider tips to keep things interesting. You can contact me at email@example.com.
Mackay Bell is a technology and new media consultant and blogger based in Los Angeles. He was abandoned as a small child and raised by wolves. Fortunately, they were tech savvy wolves that had a nice apartment in San Francisco. He grew up to be a computer consultant and now works in media. His debut novel, Eve's Hungry, about a world war between Apple and Google, is now available on Amazon.