Friday, January 31, 2014

Down With AT&T

My title might be a little heavy-handed, but hear me out.  I've been with AT&T for my cell service since before I had a rhyming name.  Before kids.  Back when it was Cell One and then Cingular and now AT&T.  Last Monday we changed carriers.  It felt a little like I was making the decision to leave an unhealthy relationship.  There was some guilt and nostalgia but mostly relief.

Our lives have changed.  We are about to embark on a new era with 4 mobile phones all requiring unlimited voice / text and some data.  We all need smart phones.  Before judging us for being spoiling suburbanites, let me clarify our reasoning:

Our kids have a walk to the middle school that is about 3/4 of a mile each way.  I believe that it helps clear their head, build relationships, foster independence, and instill healthy habits to walk everyday.  I only drive them when the windchill is below zero, every once in awhile when we are running a bit late in the morning, or if I need to leave the house at the same time as them.  With that said, I feel more comfortable if my kids have a phone with them for the walk.  It allows them to check in and see if they can go to a friend's house rather than straight home.  It gives them an option if there is an emergency or if they are feeling unsafe/sick. 

When my son graduated 5th grade, we got him a $10 a month non-smart flip phone.  The kid never had it with him.  He would forget or it would be lost in a couch cushion or uncharged. Finally, at the end of 6th grade, my husband and I reassessed the situation.  We decided to buy him his first smart phone and pay the monthly fee under these conditions:
  1. that he always had it with him and answered or texted whenever we called
  2. there was ZERO privacy - we could check his search history, texts, phone calls at any point.
  3. all phones are plugged into the family room by 9:30pm
  4. at any point in time, we could track his phone and know where he is
  5. the phone is still ours to take away for any reason
  6. we set all sorts of parenting limits with passwords
  7. he learned and practiced smart phone etiquette
  8. if it was lost, stolen, broken, or he wanted an upgrade, he would buy it himself
We didn't buy him the newest model (which is just asking to be stolen), we sold his iPod on ebay, and applied the proceeds to his new phone.  For the past year, he has his iPhone 4 with him all the time.  I always know where he is; I even track where the bus is on the way to cross country meets so that I'm not wasting time while waiting for the meet to start.  It has worked out perfectly, except that instead of $10 a month, it is $35 a month with AT&T.  As we were thinking about our daughter graduating 5th grade soon, the reality hit that we would be paying $70 a month just for them! That is a horrific amount of money and totally unacceptable.

We did a ton of research, looked around, and T-Mobile appeared to be the best deal for our situation right now.

Our AT&T bill would look like this (before fees & taxes -- with a 2 year contract):
$70 - Unlimited Talk / Text / Share 2 GB of Data (fees if we go over data, which we didn't with 3 people but we might with 4)
$35 - My Line (why there is an extra charge for the first line, I will never understand)
$35 - Hubby Line
$35 - Boy
$35 - Girl
$210 A MONTH!!!

Our T-Mobile Plan will look like this (before fees & taxes -- with NO CONTRACT):
Unlimited Talk / Text / .5 GB of Data Each (no data overages, extra GB just aren't high speed)
$50 - My Line
$30 - Hubby Line
$10 - Boy
$10 - Girl
$100 TOTAL A MONTH ($122 with new phones for me and the DH & a teacher discount)

Here were our questions / concerns about switching:

Q.  I know I need to trade in a phone to T-Mo in order for them to pay early termination fees.  Do I need to trade my valuable iPhone or can I just find an old one laying around the house?
A.  They accepted a flip phone without a charger that was 12 years old and we had laying in a box, still with the Cingular logo, and then a newer flip phone that was also laying around. They even said you could bring in a burner.

Q.  With T-Mo, I know you don't get free or discounted phones like you do with AT&T.  Do I need to buy the phones through T-Mo or can I just by them on Amazon / use my old phones?
A.  T-Mo can use any unlocked phone, you don't need to buy them through T-Mo BUT you do need to buy a phone through them for every line that they are paying the early termination fee on.  They will sell it to you at 0% financing for 24 months, if you are qualified, pay the $10 sim card fee, and taxes upfront.  New iPhone 5s were $25 a month each.  After research, we opted for the Nexus 5 at $16 a month each.

Q.  When are the early termination fees paid by T-Mo?
A.  A form is sent into T-Mo after you have a bill showing the early termination fees and that they have been paid in full.  T-Mo will eventually mail you a VISA gift card for the total amount, but I'm not holding my breath.

Q.  Isn't part of a contract the security that you won't raise the rates on us either?
A.  The T-Mo representative said, "This is your plan, you are grandfathered into the price as long as you keep your plan the same.  Besides, there is no contract, we are going to try to give you the best deal we can, or you can leave at any time."

Q.  How is the T-Mo service?  I've heard that it isn't great, especially in rural areas.
A.  For $100+ a month, it is a risk I'm willing to take but so far, so good.  T-Mo automatically uses wifi if the signal strength is low (so both of us actually have service at work which we never had before).  The T-Mo rep says that for the next couple of years, they now have use of AT&T towers so we should have at least the same, probably better, coverage than we did before.  Texting & data also work outside the US with very few (if any) charges.

THE AT&T to T-Mobile SWITCH:
Our new phones switched and ported from AT&T to T-Mo really quickly.  Love my new Nexus 5, service seems really great.  No problems anywhere yet (except with the old iPhones we are trying to transfer from AT&T to T-Mo for the kids).  Really great peeps at T-Mo.  Helped us decide on new phones and get the right plan for our family at the lowest possible rate.  I actually like that there is just a limited amount of data at high speeds.  The kids don't need access to that much data.  If my husband and I need more, we can just add it to our own lines.  The new plan actually makes way more sense and is saving us tons of money.

THE UGLY (it is a rant so feel free to skim):
Our break-up with AT&T could have been friendly but AT&T did not take that route.  I called AT&T customer retention first.  I let them know that their prices were going to be double that of a competitor.  They offered me $40 a month off for the next 4 months.  I asked how much my early termination fee will be.  They said $600 (which is nearly predatory).  We needed the old AT&T iPhones unlocked and released from AT&T before the kids could use them on the T-Mobile network.  We called and were told that our account was properly canceled, we've never paid a bill late, our credit card was on file, and we had agreed to the early termination fees so it would take from 48 hours to 5 days.  On the 5th day, we got an email saying that "our account is not in good standing so our phones won't be unlocked".  We called back.  The person said that it was because we didn't physically charge the termination fees, so we paid them immediately with a credit card.  I resubmitted the phones to be unlocked and I get a notice saying that "we've exceeded the number of allowable requests to unlock in a year and our unlock has been denied."  I call AT&T again.  This person says it is because our last billing cycle ended January 28th, and even though we switched on the 27th, we will have to wait another month until our NEW billing cycle starts to release the phones but that it is all an electronic system and there is nothing he can do to release our phones early or waive the fact that our original release didn't go through and that is why our new ones won't be honored.  I asked if I could have paid the early termination fees, unlocked the phones, and then ported over our numbers.  AT&T said that I wouldn't have been able to keep my numbers then.  This is really just the system.

I understand that AT&T doesn't want to make it easy for people to leave, but in doing so, they have made it so that I will never go back.  They really took away any little bit of nostalgia that one might have held.  It is like the boyfriend where everyone knows that it isn't working.  It was only a matter of time.  Nobody wants to compromise but instead of hugging out the goodbyes and agreeing to be civil at parities, someone decides to burn every bridge, break your CDs, throw the shards out the window, and act like total @$$3$.

At this point, the kids don't have their phones and the latest rep said it would probably be about 6 weeks because we need to get the final bill, they need to have proof that it is paid, confirm that we've only had unlock requests, (rather than the maximum unlocked phones), then start the 5 day unlocking process.  After hours on the phone with incompetence, I've really grown to hate AT&T.  Even if T-Mo never ends up reimbursing us the early termination fees, we are ahead in 1/2 a year and we have severed the AT&T bond.  If AT&T doesn't make a really quick change in how they do business, I can't imagine it lasting long.  Flocks of my friends are switching to other carriers and loving it.

I'm a little sheepish to admit that we stayed with AT&T this long.  I hate loyalty to corporations like this.  We really just felt trapped in a cycle of contracts.  It felt like we always needed to update a phone and enter into a new contract.  It took an incredible deal like T-Mo to make us break the contract.  And I'm glad we finally have.

Hope this helps someone else make decisions on cell carriers!  I'll update over spring break when we leave the city and head to more rural areas!  I'll also update when AT&T finally releases our phones, early termination fees are done, and we get bills from T-Mo.


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