tl;dr: T-Mobile’s $30/month plan beats a $70/month plan by AT&T (depending on where you need service), but T-Mobile still operates like a big phone company.
I’m pretty disloyal when it comes to phone companies; I recently was a customer of all four major US carriers in three years. It’s pretty easy to move around with an unlocked phone and Google Voice, since I’m not tied to a contract or even a phone number. I honestly have never memorized my current phone number provided by AT&T, and I’ve had it for six months.
Last month, this post by Danny Sullivan caught my eye. It mentioned a T-Mobile plan that would get me 5GB of data, unlimited texts, and 100 minutes for $30/month. I hardly ever use my phone for voice calls, so this sounded great to me. I could take or leave the texts since I use Google Voice, but it makes sense for T-Mobile to include them since it costs them virtually nothing to transmit. Even though I know that T-Mobile’s coverage can be pretty lousy in some places that I travel to, I thought it could be worth giving them another chance after a few years of network upgrades, and it wouldn’t be hard to move back to AT&T if I needed to. I got distracted, though, and forgot about it.
Today, Danny had an article on CNET describing the plan. This time, I decided to go for it.
Store: Go online.
I didn’t want to wait for a SIM card to arrive in the mail, so I walked into a T-Mobile store and announced my intentions. The clerk knew exactly the plan I was talking about, and then politely informed me that this plan was not available in stores. I had to go to the website to sign up. That’s totally understandable. Physical stores have limited inventory, so it doesn’t make sense to send all of the billing plans to all locations. Yep, it makes perfect sense. Completely unrelated to that last thought, I wish there were a better way to convey sarcasm in text.
Website: Try chatting.
I found the place to order a microSIM and entered my billing information. I got this error with multiple credit cards: Sorry – we’re having some trouble with the debit/credit card you provided. Please check to make sure you’ve correctly filled in all the required fields. I searched for that error and apparently I’m not the only one to get it.
Chat support: Try calling
On the site, a popup appeared offering chat assistance. I took them up on their offer and explained the situation. The representative simply had me re-check all of my information again. I did, and when it failed again, she asked me to call 611 or the 1-800 customer service number, apparently not understanding that I was not already a T-Mobile customer.
Phone sales: Go to the store
I called the sales number. The representative informed me that I called at an excellent time, because they’re offering microSIM cards for only 99¢. Great. I provided my billing information, and she has trouble processing the order. Like the chat representative, her first reaction is to re-verify all of the information, which she has entered correctly. She then put me on hold to check with the order processing department. When she got back, her tone was much different than it was before, when she was polite and making small talk about my name. She informed me that the order would need to be processed in a store for additional “verification.” I told her that I had already gone to a store, and that I was told I needed to go online. She said, and note that this is in quotes, that “they’re full of it” and there was no reason the store couldn’t help me. I politely explained that perhaps the clerk in the store had meant that I couldn’t purchase the plan in-store, but maybe they’d give me a SIM card. At the end of the 18-minute call, before I hung up I could hear her breathe a disappointed growl into the phone.
Store: Go to Walmart
I ventured out again and went to a different T-Mobile store. I asked for a microSIM and explained that I’d then get the $30 plan online. Two staff members told me that I couldn’t do that; if I got a SIM card in the store it would cost me $20 (remember, it was 99¢ over the phone), and they would need to activate it in-store, so I wouldn’t be able to get the plan I wanted anyway. I briefly recounted everything that had happened before this. They seemed frustrated (not with me, but with T-Mobile), and said that they’re not given any support with these online-only plans. One of them told me that he had recently helped a friend buy the plan through Walmart’s site, and said that he’s heard it’s easier to use than T-Mobile’s anyway.
Walmart: How may we confuse you?
I first tried going to walmart.com on my phone. When I searched for [t-mobile] on their mobile site, I was told, “We’re sorry, but we’re having system issues. Please try again.” I went to their desktop site on my laptop and found the $30 plan, but it was listed as an “e-delivery” item, so I wasn’t sure if I was going to get a SIM card. Since there was still a pretty good chance that something would go wrong in the billing process eventually, I aborted my mission.
If they can’t even take my money, how can I expect good service?
T-Mobile has been trying to brand themselves as the hip and rebellious “UnCarrier,” trying to set themselves apart as a sensible alternative to the traditional contract-laden US mobile providers that we all love to hate. But when they have ridiculous policies like only offering some plans on their website, it’s hard to see them as being any different.
The fact that I was unable to give them my money after several attempts is another bad sign for their ability to provide good service. I’m not terribly upset about initially being declined. While I still don’t know exactly what happened, I’m guessing that somewhere along the way I triggered a fraud flag. Sure, it’s a false positive, as I always pay my bills in full whenever they’re due, but it happens. What really frustrated me is that none of the people I spoke to were empowered to figure out what was going on and fix it.
If anyone has a recommendation for a good AT&T MVNO with a sensible data plan, let me know in the comments.
Update on June 6, 2013
I decided to give it another try today. I’m paying nearly $70/month for AT&T for only 3GB of data, and text messages cost extra. I went into a physical Walmart store and picked up a T-Mobile “starter kit” that came with a microSIM and $30 of service. I paid with cash, so I think I now have what qualifies as a burner phone. Take that, NSA. 😉
Before I activated my T-Mobile number, I called AT&T to see if they would try to retain me as a customer. When I mentioned that I was canceling to take advantage of the T-Mobile plan, the representative made no effort to retain me as a customer. Just as Verizon tried when I canceled my account with them, the AT&T agent told me that I would be charged an early termination fee because I had upgraded my phone recently. After I explained that no, I was not under contract and that I always bring my own phone, we found out that something got messed up (as it did with Verizon) when a discount code was applied to my account. She waived the fee and canceled the account.
I activated the T-Mobile line by dialing *611 after inserting the SIM, and it was a relatively easy process. I got kicked out of the automated system when I was unable to find a phone number in my city of choice. I don’t know why they don’t have an option for “I don’t care what city my phone number is in. It’s 2013. Just assign me any US number.” At one point the friendly agent asked for the number that would add credit to my account, saying that I would have scratched a card to reveal it. I could find no such card, and was worried that I had wasted my money. Fortunately he skipped over that step, and we later found out that the activation code came with the credit. My phone was then activated, and had a working Internet connection within a few minutes.
They really didn’t want me as a customer last weekend. I now feel like I snuck into a store with a mask on, paid for my items, and left without a problem.