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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why T-Mobile sucks and why phone service should be liberated from handsets

Sometimes I feel uncomfortably like a character on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Here's one reason why. I'm hoping that by relating this experience, it will prove useful for those of you contemplating changing your wireless service. I've generally been a fan of T-Mobile's service in the past, which is why a bit more than a year ago, I decide to buy the Blackberry Pearl from one of their stores and enter into a service agreement with them. This past summer, however, while in Berlin for the LSA conference, my beloved Pearl just randomly deleted a month's worth of emails. I was, quite unsurprisingly, frustrated by the experience, since the emails included my travel itinerary, flights, hotels, etc., and I had to call abroad to get this info resent to me. When I came back to the US and told T-Mobile's customer service that this had happened, they obliged by apologizing and giving me 500 bonus minutes.

Six months later, the same thing happened, and I reported it to T-Mobile and they helped explain that this disappearing email problem probably occurs when the memory on the phone starts to fill up. Well, that's helpful to know, I said, I'll be sure to clear the cache on my internet browser more frequently in the future, but since no one ever said in advance that that this is a limitation on the phone, I'd still like to be comped another 500 minutes. The guy said sure, and I left to go teach my class. Unfortunately, as I just found out when I called to verify the existence of my bonus minutes, the guy I spoke with then didn't record that he agreed to comp me the 500 minutes.

So the supervisor I just spoke to this evening, definitely the rudest person I've talked with during my four years as a T-Mobile customer--a super snarky person named Theresa--said a) it's just a limitation of the phone and not T-Mobile's fault, b) there's no record of giving you bonus minutes, and c) we're not giving you any more bonus minutes because you've already been compensated by bonus minutes in the past for previous service problems you've had. Wow!

I explained that if it was not T-Mobile's responsibility, why did they accept responsibility beforehand, and that they are, to all public eyes, in a joint venture with RIM, which makes the Blackberry, and because T-Mobile handles the service calls, they're in the best position to report these software glitches to RIM and have them fixed. (Clue: all it takes is a notification to users that they should monitor their Pearl's memory if they want to retain their email.) She also made it seem as if I've already received too many bonus minutes in the four years I've had an account with them, even though it's been their discretion to allocate bonus minutes after service outages. It goes without saying that if there hadn't been service or software failures, there would have been no basis for compensating their customers with bonus minutes, which are likely to be marginally costless to them anyway.  Still, she gave me a big bowl of nothing, not even an apology, despite her line worker's professions of apologies and understanding for the inconvenience of it all.

All this is a way of saying a few things, two of which I hope find their way to T-Mobile's management: first of all, T-Mobile, you've got a good customer service record which is in real jeopardy when you employ mean and unprofessional service managers like Theresa in your ranks. Second, if Theresa was following a policy of capping the bonus minutes customers are entitled to because of service and software problems they've experienced, then you've got really screwy policies, since you should want to have customers report these problems rather than have them simply conclude the service/hardware one buys from T-Mobile is just crappy and worth leaving the moment a problem like this erupts. This is especially the case when the problem can be resolved relatively easily.

Last, if T-Mobile is going to blithely disclaim responsibility for the service it provides for the phones it sells and brands with its name, then that's a good reason, I think, for the government to require that providers let me use my current phone with multiple providers, rather than having to buy a new phone in a new service contract when I have a perfectly good one (with a software glitch I can plan around once I'm told about it). In other words, it seems pretty weird to force me to buy a new phone if I could just as easily take my working phone to a different wireless provider, where hopefully the Theresas of the world have been weeded out. Kevin Martin, this post is for you too.  (I should note: I'm not entirely sure what the rules are now, but the practices I'm familiar with definitely seem to discourage taking phones from one provider and using it with different providers.)

Posted by Administrators on January 24, 2008 at 10:58 PM in Information and Technology | Permalink


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Fu&* T-Mobile! This service has gotten progressively worse over the last year. The blackberry service is horrendous. I am so getting rid of this shit

Posted by: Bluzulu | Nov 15, 2008 5:35:40 PM

I have went thru a nightmare with t-mobile they sent me 3 phone within a 30 day period and none of them worked the list goes on and on who can I talk to about this, they are now harrassing me because I discontinued service and was on a contract but, these are not the only problems I have had

Posted by: Don Hale | Oct 17, 2008 10:57:24 PM

T-Mobile has outsourced their email customer care to a company named NCO. NCO's center in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada has been where ALL your emails have been coming from for a long time.

Now they have sent all the emails to the PHILIPPINES! Get ready for your email and webchat customer care to be coming from Filipino people! HAHA. I thought T-Mobile would never go offshore? They do through NCO. You thought your customer care was bad before?!

Posted by: Screwed | Oct 11, 2008 3:59:40 AM

I've had nothing but problems since I switched to T-Mobile. I've gone through two different cell phones and two SIM cards as instructed by their technical support, and I still don't get about 30% of my calls (the phone doesn't ring and sends people to my voicemail, and of course, the ring is set to on.)

Not only this, but when I originally had my number transferred to them, it took them over a week to complete the transfer when I was told it would take 24 hours. I had to call them nearly 5 times to find out they needed some information from the previous provider to complete the transfer. Couldn't they have told me somehow that they needed this info? When I finally gave them the info, they -still- didn't transfer it; I had to call them until they said "oh, looks like we just needed to activate it."

As I stand now, I'm still waiting for them to fix my 60% reachable phone line, three weeks into their prepaid service. They are looking into the problem with their highest tier (tier 3) engineers. As it stands so far, I can't recommend T-Mobile to anybody. I understand I may not be a common case, though.

I originally had Boost, and had absolutely no problems with them. I didn't even get the dead air delay that I get with every call with T-Mobile. I only switched in the first place because T-Mobile was cheaper. I regret it wholeheartedly.

Posted by: Brian | Aug 21, 2008 12:35:24 AM

Dude, I've been with T-Mobile for 8 (EIGHT that is) years. Its been so good so far. I called last week to replace my Razr that took a whole lot of beating in the past few years. I was told by the rep that as soon as a paid my balance they will send me a new W490 for just a $19.00 replacement-fee. I paid my bill and called them today to get my new phone. The rep, the supv told me I would have to sign a 2 years extension contract to get this phone for free. To me it is the principal that spoke. Last week that, this week this, completely different. That is what you get for eight years: some bs runaround. I will talk to my wife today and transfer to another company. I don't care if its going to be more expensive. I sign the 2 year contract with them instead, which I understand as a new customer. And then if they lie and bs, I go to another company after 2 years. T-Mobile's reps by the way are just like any other phone reps, uneducated, script reading poor loosers. I mean the supv I talked today I could not understand a word he told me. T-Mobile also has the worst selection of phones: outdated, slow, and silly. My brother in Europe has a 5MP Sony cameraphone for 2 years now, when he got it wasn't the best around anymore. Most of T-Mobile's phones here are 1.3 MP, that is pretty lame.

Posted by: Peter G | Aug 14, 2008 2:35:41 PM

I have been suffering for months with dropped calls. I called customer service and while they did have me jumping through lots of hopes, rebooting, loading new software and a bunch of other stuff. Plain and simple no resolution to my issues.

I called while stadning outside an AT&T store and told them, if I cannot get a new phone of something to fix this issue, I am going to switch to AT&T.

They tried hard to keep me offer a better deal the the AT&T deal, everything for $139.99 a month unlimited, but what I wanted was either a new phone that I would try for 30 days and send back if it still did not fix the issue or for them to let me out of my contract that has nearly expried in three months.

T-Mobile service would do neither and I did not want to pay again for $150.00+ refurb replacement phone.

Customer service stops and end with the customer being happy, I had a well documented list of issues that had never been resolved and they refused provide what I feel was a fair solution for my issues considering I had been with them over 6 years.

Posted by: Jay Pickett | Mar 30, 2008 9:02:37 PM

Ive been with tmobile for 4 years now... i must say theyre customer service is by far one of the best ive ever dealt with.. cant complain.. got a tmobile wing myself....

Posted by: david | Feb 8, 2008 3:37:48 PM

While there is never any issue that justifies anyone being rude to a customer I always believe that seeing both sides may help. For instance, T-Mobile, is not as cold hearted as some of you may believe. For instance, they will unlock your phone for free as a courtesy to their customers, unlike many out there selling the unlock codes. No strings attached.

Also, bonus minutes, although cheaper to give you than credits, are not free for the carrier and can & are very easily abused. Customers learn of their existance and then, instead of changing rate plans, ask for bonus minutes every month. Just remember that every customer doing this costs the company money and it is then eventually passed on to you the other customer. That is why they are monitored somewhat. That is why Theresa was mentioning the previous bonus minutes, right or wrong.

While your situation is an individual case and should be judged as one and while it may justify some kind of education or compensation, 500 bonus minutes at 0.40 per minute (average overage costs) are valued @ $200.00. When balancing things out is this issue a $200.00 issue? Twice in 2 months? Maybe, but although T-Mobile, like all carriers, does offer to sell you the device to use their service, unless you chose to bring an unlocked device in and only pay activation fee and possibly the cost of a SIM, the manufacturer holds the ultimate warranty.

I truly hope you get all the issues resolved because I can tell you have been a loyal customer. All phones are computers now but especially Pearls and other SmartPhones. We need to treat them as such and do regular maintenance, software upgrades, emptying the memory, adding a memory card, etc. These are not our grandparents landlines any more. Also, T-mobile.com, My T-mobile.com have really good software upgrade links and information on troubleshooting your device without calling tech. The information is high quality and may help prevent future issues with your device. Blackberry.com is a high quality, interactive site that I highly recommend also.

Posted by: My Humble Opinion | Feb 5, 2008 1:57:15 AM

Dang it! I signed with the wrong website URL. I meant to type: www.backbencher.org (not .com). Grrr. Now I've given a link to a cybersquatter. There's my instant karma for gloating over the T Mobile chicanery.

Posted by: Eric E. Johnson | Jan 30, 2008 9:51:09 AM

Maybe this will make you feel a little bit better, Dan. My wife and I got T Mobile service in LA. They gave us nationwide plan with no roaming charges, even when out of network. Where T Mobile doesn't have service, they pay a local provider to carry the phone call. Well, we moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota. And there's no T Mobile here. It's fantastic - our phone situation couldn't be better. We have spectacular reception, because our phone seems to connect with whatever signal is strongest. But we still pay a price calibrated to the LA market where they have their own network. Heh heh. Everytime we make a call, T Mobile is paying someone else to carry it. Heh heh heh. Oh, they don't want North Dakota customers. They don't offer plans here. There's no Catherine Zeta Jones billboards up here. But thanks to their thorny contract, they are stuck with us! I like to think about them losing money with every call we place. Nothing against T Mobile personally, I just thrill to the thought that we are taking advantage of a cell phone company, rather than the other way around. So, feel good, Dan, that sometimes karma even happens to telecom giants.

Posted by: Eric E. Johnson | Jan 30, 2008 9:41:39 AM

I had this problem on my T-Mobile Pearl as well. If you update the handheld software to the latest version, it gets rid of that issue. My issue, for which I spent about a total of 10 hours on the phone with tech support with both RIM and T-Mobile is that my trackball stopped moving to the left. They finally sent me a new one of their own volition, but they had to go through the due diligence to make sure it wasn't a software problem first.

Posted by: Chocoburger | Jan 30, 2008 9:09:47 AM

Why don't you just unlock your Pearl, pay the T-Mobile termination fee, and take it to AT&T?

AT&T will happily sell you service with just a SIM card, no new phone required, if you have an unlocked phone, and there are many businesses that will unlock it for you at low cost. (Disclaimer: Not legal advice.)

Posted by: JimAtLaw | Jan 29, 2008 6:47:45 PM


The contours of the tying debate can, I think, be found in any standard antitrust textbook. You have outlined the anticompetitive intuition. For the one sentence version of the pro-consumer intuition, consider that an "unlocked" phone costs something in the range of $200 while the "locked" version costs $0 with a two year contract. The price of the minutes remains the same. Thus, if you a consumer who places no value on the option of changing carriers because you don't plan on exercising it, you are much better off ($200 better off) to have this type of tying permitted than banned. Of course once you prohibit tying all the dynamics will change, so this is only to outline the intution and not make the extended economic argument.

* An unlocked phone is one that you can carry to other carriers and sign right up to their minute plan--i.e. what you are looking for. You can get them if you really want to, but few consumers do because they involve a significant chunk of change upfront.

Posted by: TJ | Jan 27, 2008 11:54:26 PM

I don't really follow this stuff, but I'm fairly certain that Google is lobbying for rule changes at the FCC allowing consumers to connect to any network using any device or service, not just devices that have been approved by the carriers. This would make it analogous to our wired internet connections where we can hook up any device we want and run any internet service we want without getting our ISP's approval. Now, there's a spectrum auction underway, and Google is bidding, and they've publicly said that if they win this open network requirement will be part of the license terms for any carrier who wants to use that spectrum band.

Posted by: Shane | Jan 26, 2008 2:02:03 PM

Three words: high entry costs. I mean, in an even slightly competitive market, a competitor ought to arise who doesn't do any of the ridiculously crooked cellphone company practices -- device-company ties, total misrepresentations about coverage area, practically long-term contracts in situations of wild information asymmetries, planned obsolescence with shoddy equipment and unavailable accessories (just you try to buy a new charger for some of the really popular old low-end phones), etc. etc.

Competitors do arise ... on local markets. (There are all sorts of local carriers in the Bay Area, for example, who advertise unlimited flat rates, no contracts, etc.) But it seems like they can't be players nationally.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jan 26, 2008 2:38:52 AM

TJ, thanks for the reference. I recognize it's a tie; I have trouble understanding why we think these are pro-consumer rather than pro-competitor. But I welcome the opportunity to be gently educated...

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jan 25, 2008 4:25:39 PM

Dan, your phone and minute plan is a classic tie. See Illinois Tool Works Inc. v. Independent Ink, Inc., 547 U.S. 28 (2006). Whether the government should prohibit such tying has been debated to death.

Posted by: TJ | Jan 25, 2008 2:38:41 PM

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