Can you hear me now? Never mind the iPhone 'revolution' – service is still lousy

The introduction of Apple's new phone doesn't change the wireless industry's poor treatment of customers.
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The introduction of Apple's new phone doesn't change the wireless industry's poor treatment of customers.

The news that Bill Gates has been dethroned as the world's richest person by a cellular-telephone billionaire, Carlos Slim of Mexico, is a telling moment in the technology industry. And no surprise to anyone paying the family wireless bill. It's getting harder for the software industry to sell more to the individual PC owner – people are less inclined to "upgrade" to the newest version of Microsoft Windows or Office, for example. But just the opposite is the case with the cellular phone, which has morphed from a brick-like mobile telephone into to a "smart" device capable of accessing the Internet, providing services like GPS mapping, and, more to the point, vastly increasing the fees you pay. A bill that once averaged at $40 or $60 is now more than $120 a month for many users – make that several hundred dollars for parents with students on a family plan. I thought it was physically impossible for one person to send 1,199 text messages in a given month, till AT&T (formerly Cingular) sent me an itemized, 55-page bill in teeny type. So it is possible, and even normal for college students who text each other in class, at parties, and in bars. (Once at City Hall, a colleague sent me a pithy note during a long meeting: "Zzzzzzz.") Wireless companies are only too happy to charge both sender and receiver for text messages – a service once considered a junk part of the business, unsexy, and undemanding on the network but now a growing source of profit for Slim and other wireless tycoons. Customers do get a non choice: Try to limit text messaging by teenagers or surrender and pay the $29 monthly fee for unlimited messaging. Slim took the crown as top billionaire as buyers of the new Apple iPhone were finding new levels of spending. The new, cool thing is a money hog: $499, or $599 for the handset with more memory, plus $60 a month for a bare-bones plan of 450 minutes of call time and 200 text messages. Buyers must also agree to sign a two-year contract. In other words, the iPhone is a commitment of about $2,000, plus taxes, federal fees, and other extras. The iPhone has been greeted with slavish coverage by the news media, except for a few writers such as Brier Dudley in The Seattle Times, who stayed sober. Dudley found a few weeds in the Steve Jobs garden. A blogger named Adam Frucci bemoaned a missed opportunity by not giving customers the freedom to pick a provider. Instead, Apple offered only one choice, AT&T. Apple could have done even more. It had a chance to think different, revolutionize not just the wireless phone (which it admittedly improved) but the relationship of the industry to its customers. Apple has great customer service. The wireless industry does not. AT&T offers one of the slowest data networks and is certainly no better than its peers in customer service. In fact, based on my own experiences with four different companies, it's hard to imagine an industry that does more to consistently abuse its customers with dropped calls, bewildering billings, unresponsiveness, hidden charges, misleading advertisements, and representatives who are the first to admit their own difficulty with confusing policies. Only when your service contract is about to expire does a "customer retention" representative disclose an unannounced discount, available now if you sign for two more years. Until the federal government mandated number portability, customers faced an awful choice of staying with a provider or starting elsewhere with a new number. Not to pick on Apple too much. The iPhone is a neat thing, not quite "insanely great," just overpriced and stranded with one provider. Maybe Google will bring the change we need as it moves into telecommunications. I don't know a thing about Carlos Slim or his company, American Movil, Latin America's largest wireless company. It's unfair to say, but I bet his service is lousy.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.