Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Struggle With Wireless - An Open Letter to Wireless Carriers

I'd like to share my interesting wireless experience with you. I'm hoping that this post gets some visibility, and someone from the wireless industry will read it and this will bring some light to how poorly the customers in the industry are treated. I'm not talking about walking into a retail store and having an employee be rude to you, I'm talking about how the industry as a whole treats their customers in general.

A little bit of background...

I've been around the wireless industry for a long time. I started working at U.S. Cellular in the beginning of 2010, and I watched the smartphone revolution take place with the explosion of Android on Verizon and the explosion of iPhone on AT&T. Those two platforms sparked a huge revolution in the way people use their devices, and the kind of demand for wireless infrastructure that comes along with that revolution. The new platforms brought applications with them that were hungry for data, and the users of the applications were hungry for quick response times and application usability, which means 2 things... Users are going to use MORE data, and they want it to respond quicker. They're going to need a higher throughput or bandwidth. That's when EVDO became increasingly important for the CDMA carriers, and HSPA became increasingly important for the GSM carriers.

We eventually reached a point where EVDO and HSPA weren't cutting the mustard anymore either. Enter LTE, the low-latency, high-throughput technology that we know and love today. I'm one of the users that demands LTE service, because I use my device for everything. I use it for email, collaboration, calls, texting, browsing, taking pictures, reading the news, etc. I'm a power user. My cellular device is probably the most important one I use every day.

When I left U.S. Cellular, I went to work for Iowa Wireless, which is an affiliate to T-Mobile. They are a GSM carrier that provide T-Mobile services in Iowa. Des Moines, Iowa is the only market that's actually owned and operated by T-Mobile themselves. I was a field technician for Iowa Wireless, so I got a lot of visibility into how cellular equipment actually operates. I was responsible for about 20 cell tower sites, and my job was to ensure that the sites were fully operational every day for power, availability, and reliability. This gave me a unique view into the things that customers don't see every day, the actual back-end issues that can go wrong with a cellular network.

I was somewhat unhappy with my job at Iowa Wireless, because I wasn't impressed with how they were handling the transition to newer, faster, more efficient cellular services. It seemed like there was a mindset of "people don't need that kind of data service." - being a power user, this is definitely NOT what I want to see.

So there you have a little bit of background as to where I came from, and how I came to know about the wireless industry. I don't claim to be an expert, but unfortunately, most of the time I can outwit the in-store employees of just about all of these companies. I've seen billing issues and why they happen, I've seen device issues and why they happen, and because of Iowa Wireless, I got a chance to see network issues and why they happen. I'd like to think I have an end-to-end understanding of how these things work.

My history as a wireless customer...

While working for U.S. Cellular, I was part of an employee phone program, so we got deep discounts on the phone service. I never really questioned it, because my service was good, and it was incredibly cheap. It wasn't until I left U.S. Cellular that I started looking elsewhere. Here's a little bit of history for me as a wireless customer:

Carrier #1 - U.S. Cellular
Start Date: ~2006
End Date: November 2011

Devices Used on U.S. Cellular:
Motorola V810
Motorola V323i
Samsung Acclaim
LG Optimus G
HTC Desire
BlackBerry 8330
HTC 7 Pro
HTC Merge
Samsung Mesmerize
There's probably more, I was a beta tester as a service tech...

Why did I start service with U.S. Cellular?
I got my first cell phone when I was in high school. I was 16 years old at the time (2006).

Why did I terminate my service with U.S. Cellular?
I was hired at Iowa Wireless, and I was no longer really required to have service with U.S. Cellular, so I began looking elsewhere for service. I ended up picking AT&T as my provider for my personal device, and I'll explain in the next section why.


Carrier #2 - AT&T
Start Date: November 2011
End Date: March 2015

Devices Used on AT&T:
iPhone 4S
iPhone 5S
Nexus 4
Nexus 5
Nexus 6
Nokia Lumia 920
Moto X (2014)

Why did I start service with AT&T?
I started service with AT&T because I had just left U.S. Cellular, and I was looking to see if there were other options. As a power user, I refused to get service with Iowa Wireless, because even though I was working for them, at the time, they still only had EDGE networks deployed in Dubuque where I live. I required something with higher speed data, and at the time I became an AT&T customer, they had already fully deployed HSPA in Dubuque, which was about a 7 to 8Mbps download rate, which is decent, and was great at the time. I also liked that I could start taking part in the Google Nexus program, because AT&T was one of their supported carriers on all of their stock Android Nexus devices.

Why did I terminate my service with AT&T?
I terminated my service with AT&T for a couple of reasons... In the city limits of Dubuque, AT&T's service is excellent, I was actually very happy with it. Immediately upon leaving the boundaries of the city, you will lose service. I'm not talking for a few miles until you reach the next town, either. I'm talking 50+ miles. AT&T looks at eastern Iowa and the surrounding area as a low priority. Because I'm a power user, I need data speeds. When I leave Dubuque, I want my service to remain consistent.

The 2nd reason I terminated my service with AT&T was because they had won the race in Dubuque to get to 3G (HSPA, basically) however, they have yet to deploy LTE in Dubuque. Right now in Dubuque, Verizon, U.S. Cellular, and Sprint all have LTE service deployed. Iowa Wireless still doesn't, but they are all but irrelevant in Dubuque now, so I won't even count them as a valid option.

Carrier #3 - Verizon Wireless
Start Date: March 2015
End Date: Current

Devices Used on Verizon Wireless:
Nexus 6

Why did I start service with Verizon Wireless?
I started service with Verizon Wireless because they've fully deployed LTE in Dubuque, and when I travel, I know I'm going to have decent, reliable LTE service, and I'll never really have the thought in the back of my head as to whether or not I'll have issues with service wherever I'm traveling.

This became especially true the week of May 11th, because I went on vacation in Orlando, Florida, and I had excellent service throughout my entire vacation, including the drive back to Iowa.

Why am I near cancelling my service with Verizon?
The explanation for this is rather intricate, and I'll get into it a little further down...

The Verizon Wireless Fiasco
March 2015
I start service with Verizon Wireless. I've ported my AT&T cell phone number to Google Voice so I can take advantage of all of the features that Google Voice brings along with it. Because I'm using Google Voice, and all of my calls, texts, and picture messages are now DATA-BASED, I only require data service.

I ask Verizon if there's any way I can activate a phone with DATA ONLY service. I'll admit, this is a bit of an experiment, because Verizon doesn't let you activate a PHONE as a DATA ONLY device. It's got the capability to make calls, so they want to squeeze more revenue out of you. I get that, but it's still wrong.

I had to speak with about 3 or 4 different representatives in the store and on the phone with customer service to find a plan that actually is DATA ONLY for a smartphone. Now, I can't activate a Nexus 6 on Verizon that was purchased from the Google Play Store, but I can activate another phone with a nano SIM card and place the SIM into the Nexus 6 to get service started. I contacted a friend, and I used his iPhone 5 to activate my Verizon account with the data only service that I mentioned, and I was up and running with my Nexus 6 on Verizon. Voice, SMS, MMS, and Data, thanks to Google Voice providing me with the Voice, SMS and MMS features.

April 2015
Something unique happens to me. I'm going to Chicago for Easter weekend at the beginning of April to meet my girlfriend's family, and I'm also on call for work. Because I'm on call for work, I need to have tethering service on my phone so if I get paged on the ride to Chicago, I have to have the ability to get online on my work laptop and start working on issues.

Saturday morning, I go to test the wireless hotspot feature on my Nexus 6, and it reports an error message saying that wireless hotspot is disabled on my account, and I need to contact customer service.

It's then that I find out that my cool data-only plan does NOT include wireless hotspot. I need to change to a shared data plan in order to get that feature. By the time I get ahold of someone from customer service, we're already on the road to Chicago, because we're running late. I call into customer service from my girlfriend's AT&T phone, explain the situation, and say that I need to change my plan. They can't do it, because the current active device is the Nexus 6, and when you make plan changes, their billing system does a status check to see if ANY devices on the account are Non-Verizon devices. If one is found, the plan change is aborted and not possible.

I informed the customer service representative that I can't get the iPhone 5 active to change the plan, because it's in Dubuque. I'm no longer in Dubuque. She explains to me that she can't change the plan without doing that, but she CAN submit a "DMD" request form to have my Nexus 6 approved for usage on the Verizon network, and identified as an actual Nexus 6, so their billing system will not flag it as invalid anymore. I request that she do that, and I am TOLD that the request gets submitted for review and action.

I made the trip to Chicago without the wireless hotspot feature on my account, risking an on call page situation where I am unable to get online on my work laptop.

Upon arriving in Chicago, we stop at a Verizon Wireless retail store to see if an in-store associate can help me. She is unable to make the active device the iPhone 5, so I told her to try getting a NEW SIM card, and activating the new SIM card with the iPhone 5, and seeing if we can then change the plan, and place the SIM into the Nexus 6. She agrees to try it, and we have success. Now I have a fully functional wireless hotspot feature on my Nexus 6. I'm able to make it through the weekend and the trip back to Dubuque without any worries about my availability for being on call for work.

May 2015
The week of May 11th, I make a trip to Orlando, Florida for a family vacation. While I'm there, I take a lot of pictures, and then sync them with my Google Drive account, so I can remove them from the local device (Nexus 6).

My data plan with Verizon as a result of my Chicago trip is the 6GB shared data plan. While in Florida, I exceed my 6GB data cap, resulting in a data overage. These things happen, it's no big deal. I took a look at the plan pricing online, and decided that 10GB is probably a good option for me. It's not the worst pricing in the world, and it'll satisfy pretty much all of my data usage needs for cellular, not to mention the fact that I will potentially have additional people joining my Verizon account.

5/18
I login to MyVerizon on their website, and attempt to change my plan. When trying to change my plan, I'm met with an error message saying that I need to call in to customer service to change my plan.

Uh oh... my device is still listed as a Non-Verizon device, and because of this, it's failing the IMEI validation test in their billing system, which aborts the plan change function.

I call in to customer service, and ask why my phone is still listed as a Non-Verizon device. The rep from customer service tells me they have NO RECORD of that request ever being submitted. The rep I'm speaking with offers to re-submit the request, and I agree to it. In the mean time, she tells me that at the end of my billing cycle (5/20/2015) she can change me to the 10GB plan without issues. I told her that's ideal, and as long as it gets done, I'm OK with waiting for the device authorization request.

5/20
Well, 5/20 rolls around, and I look at MyVerizon on the website, and I'm still on the 6GB plan. She was unable to process the plan change request, but never bothered letting me know that. I call into customer service for the 2nd time this month, asking them why it did not get processed. I'm told that the rep from 5/18 placed a note on the account saying that she was going to process it, but that's the last bit of evidence on the account.

I informed the rep that the outcome of this transaction will basically determine my future with Verizon Wireless, and that I'd like to speak with one of the members of the team that actually processes the device authorization requests (Verizon refers to these as DMD requests, Device Management Database).

At this point, I'm told that the DMD team does not interact with the person that submits the request. They have ZERO interaction with them. The way they are informed whether or not the request has been approved is via email, and they have NO actual contact with the DMD team personnel.

This person that I'm speaking with apologizes, and explains to me that no matter how much he wanted to, he wouldn't even be able to FIND a member of the DMD team for me to talk to. I explained to him that this is unacceptable, and that I need to speak with his supervisor. He apologizes AGAIN, and explains that his supervisor is out of the office, but will call me back tomorrow, on 5/21. I could not stress enough to this person that I need someone in the company that I can return to. I need the ability to keep track of this request with a single person. I cannot continue to call in and get a random rep, who I have to explain the entire situation to repeatedly. The rep gave me his email address (which I will not disclose) so that I could contact him directly with questions if I needed to.

5/21
Today, I did NOT receive a call or an email from Verizon Wireless, from the rep or his supervisor. I sent an email to the person I spoke with on 5/20 at the address they contacted me from, informing him that I have not yet received a call back, and that I will be waiting.

After a couple of hours, I stopped into the retail store in Dubuque, explained the entire situation to them, and they got on the phone with someone from "Tier 3 technical support"

Once again, they explained to me that I am at the mercy of the DMD team, and ONCE AGAIN, I was told that even the technical support tier 3 staff does not have ANY method of finding out who is on the DMD team, or how to contact them in any other fashion than submitting the DMD request form for authorizing my device.

The tier 3 tech support person I chatted with today gave me his email address, and told me that he would immediately contact me following the result of the DMD request. I'm still not satisfied with this though, because of the fact that internally at Verizon, they are just as helpless as I am as a customer.

Not a single person that I've spoken with at Verizon Wireless, regardless of their status as a supervisor, technical support staff, or general customer-facing retail associate, has the ability to manipulate or bypass the billing system in a way where they can change my plan. To reiterate, they cannot even CHANGE MY PLAN ON A FUNCTIONAL DEVICE.

I have seriously reached a point where this is no longer about service with Verizon Wireless. I have found two MAJOR flaws with Verizon Wireless that are basically making me inclined to no longer do business with them:

1. Your employees are powerless.

Your billing software does not allow for any manual overrides. All of the friendly, helpful people that I've talked to and now shared hours on the phone with or in person with, have been completely powerless to help me, even if they understood my situation clearly, and were fully willing to help me.

The billing software has stopped ME, and even your supervisor-level associates from making any changes to my account. I own a device that is now SOLD BY VERIZON WIRELESS, and no one has the authority to list the device as authorized for use on the Verizon network, and no one has the ability to speak with anyone from the team that DOES have the ability.

I have not been misleading in any way to any of the Verizon Wireless associates. I have explained to them every time that I have a Nexus 6 device that I have purchased from Google. Every time I have interacted with one of them, they have been willing to help me, and in some cases, even offered work-around methods to achieve what I am looking to get done. At NO point has someone told me that they are unwilling to help me achieve what I am trying to do.

2. Your lack of internal collaboration is ASTOUNDING. I'm surprised you are able to get ANYTHING done as a company. The fact that this is visible to a retail customer of yours is EMBARRASSING for you.

As I mentioned earlier, the two associates that I spoke with about the DMD request form (the tech support rep from 5/20 and the tier 3 rep from 5/21) - they both gave me the same exact explanation as to how they have no visibility into who works on the DMD team or how to contact them.

The 2nd example of this is that in the retail store, I have been told that they have no visibility into management higher than who is involved with the store, and they have no company directory or the ability to reach out higher than their own management structure. Today, the in-store gentleman told me that he would reach out to a regional person that visits their store, but did not really make any promises as to the results of his efforts.

At this point, it's no longer about the service. My Nexus 6 works fine on Verizon, and has for the entire duration of me having service with them. I'll explain below what I have for options, and why I'm hesitant to make any changes. That being said, at this point, I'm going to give Verizon one more day to straighten this situation out. Either my Nexus 6 is authorized for use, or it isn't. If it's not, I'll start an account somewhere else. That's kind of the beauty of the Nexus 6.

OK, so who do I have for options, and why would I choose them or not?

I am going to set all pricing aside, because price is NOT the driving factor behind me choosing service. It is important, yes, but it's not primary factor in my decision.
Here's what I have for options in Dubuque:

U.S. Cellular
Why would I choose U.S. Cellular?
-Service in Dubuque is excellent.
-They have a full LTE deployement in Dubuque.
-The surrounding areas have good coverage, and full LTE deployments.
-The Nexus 6 will work on U.S. Cellular
-U.S. Cellular WILL activate my Nexus 6 in an authorized, valid manner and treat it as a U.S. Cellular device.

Why wouldn't I choose U.S. Cellular?
-I'm required to sign a 2-year agreement, even with customer owned equipment
-The early termination fee is $350 if I decide to terminate service with them.
-U.S. Cellular does NOT have nationwide LTE service.
-If I leave a U.S. Cellular licensed area, I will have EVDO service with Sprint as their roaming partner.

U.S. Cellular has forgotten how two-year agreements work. They are charging people early termination fees that would typically be for subsidized devices. I spent over 700 dollars on my Nexus 6 FOR THIS VERY REASON. I wanted to buy my own device, and activate it with a carrier of my choosing, without signing a two-year agreement.

Sprint
Why would I choose Sprint?
-They have a full LTE deployment in Dubuque
-The Nexus 6 will work on Sprint
-Sprint WILL active my Nexus 6 in an authorized, valid manner and treat it as a Sprint device.
-No 2-year agreement.

Why wouldn't I choose Sprint?
-Their coverage everywhere is terrible / bare bones.
-When I worked for Iowa Wireless, I saw that they used single T1's to service a cellular site. A single T1 is 1.544Mbps. To put 100+ users on a cellular site with 1.544Mbps of bandwidth for your backhaul is crazy. I can't imagine they've done much better with their LTE service.
-Sprint does not maintain their cellular equipment. Sprint has contracted this service with Ericsson, and they do not do regular maintenance on their cellular sites. The last I knew, it was break-fix only. This is unacceptable for cellular.

AT&T
Why would I choose AT&T?
-There is good coverage in Dubuque.
-The Nexus 6 will work on AT&T
-AT&T WILL activate my Nexus 6 in an authorized, valid manner and treat it as an AT&T device.
-No 2-year agreement.

Why wouldn't I choose AT&T?
-They have yet to deploy LTE in Dubuque.
-Coverage when leaving the boundaries of Dubuque is absolutely terrible for 50+ miles in any direction.

When the FCC announced at the end of 2014 that they were going to continue pursuing the classification of some service providers as Title II, AT&T halted work on their infrastructure upgrades. This impacted Dubuque. We have a half-baked LTE deployment in Dubuque for AT&T as a result of this. For a company to stop all infrastructure upgrades as a result of how data services are classified by the FCC is very arrogant, and only negatively impacts customers.

The CEO of AT&T has announced (as of this week) that they will resume infrastructure upgrades in 2015, resulting in about $18 Billion in investments for 2015. Maybe by the end of 2015, I'll be able to get LTE service in Dubuque with AT&T. Either way, kind of embarrassing for them, and another one of those principle things that bothers me about AT&T.

Iowa Wireless
Why would I choose Iowa Wireless?
-The Nexus 6 will work on Iowa Wireless
-Iowa Wireless WILL activate my Nexus 6 in an authorized, valid manner and treat it as an Iowa Wireless device.
-No 2-year agreement.

Why wouldn't I choose Iowa Wireless?
-Terrible coverage.
-Their network is still EDGE in Dubuque.


Why am I writing this?

I'm not an average cellular customer. I'm a power user with my device, which I took the risk and paid full retail price for. I love my phone, I love what it enables me to do, but by buying the "one phone to rule them all" I've gotten to know the dark corners of the cellular industry.

1. U.S. Cellular is requiring me to sign a two-year agreement, and charging me a termination fee for a subsidized device that isn't even subsidized.
2. Verizon Wireless has employees that have no idea how to contact other employees, and don't even understand their management structure.
3. Sprint is terrible, pretty much everywhere.
4. T-Mobile isn't available in my area, and the company that operates AS T-Mobile is too small to make any impact, so they still have EDGE networks in a lot of their serviced markets.
5. AT&T began an LTE deployment in Dubuque, yet stopped less than halfway through it because they were afraid of their profit margins and level of control being reduced. Only once they were confident that they'd have things their way again, would they resume upgrading their infrastructure.

The fact of the matter is that this industry is run incorrectly. These companies have completely lost sight of WHY they do what they do. Every single one of them has gotten too large, and focused almost solely on profit margins. At the end of the day, you became a wireless company to sell wireless service to your customers. You did that incorrectly by subsidizing your devices and forcing 2-year contracts to make up for the subsidies. Even that wasn't profitable enough, so now you have 2-year contracts in addition to device financing and device payment plans.

Get back on track. Focus on what you came here to do, sell your connectivity and infrastructure services to your customers. Provide a service at a reasonable price, and in the case of Verizon, for Pete's sake, give your front line associates some power to help the customer. I've spoken with probably 15+ Verizon associates at this point, all of which have ZERO power over the billing system. When I worked at U.S. Cellular, I was able to help the customer, as long as the judgement call was right and justified. I hate to say it, but for wireless, I miss those days. I miss what it originally meant when I was hired at U.S. Cellular.

When Jack Rooney died, wireless may have died with him.

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