Thursday, November 19, 2009

AT&T Just Doesn't Get It: Part 3

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.

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