net.wars: it's the death wish!

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 29 March 2002

It's the end of March and while other people may be thinking of spring or holiday rituals, my thoughts turn naturally to Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, the conference I go to every year to hang out with a crowd whose sentences I never want to finish.

Wendy M Grossman

I look forward to trips back to my native US; not just for Computers and Privacy - but also because it's nice to hang out in a place where my accent sounds normal. Unfortunately, on this trip first I have to run the gamut of AT&T Wireless to get some money into the pre-pay phone I ignorantly bought in December 2000.

This prospect fills me with pre-emptive frustration, that jittery state in which all anyone in Customer Don't-Care (actually, Customer We-Don't-Give-a-Shit) has to do is say, "Well ... " and you erupt.

It's not nice of a company to make ordinary people feel like they want to invest in hand grenades.

The primary difficulty about having a pre-pay phone is getting money into it so you can make (and, in the US, receive) calls. Here are the failures I have had at this task in the last 15 months:-

AT&T Wireless's Web site pretended to accept credit cards with non-US addresses. Q-pass, AT&T's aggregator, accepts international addresses, and charged my credit card. But AT&T Wireless won't accept them online, so the time was never credited. Result: arrival in Philadelphia with a zeroed phone.

- AT&T's "Customer Care" [sic] also pretended to accept credit cards with non-US addresses and claimed the sinister-sounding "Quality Assurance" would call me back to confirm for security reasons. After five attempts, that rare bird, a knowledgeable support staffer, admitted the company wouldn't accept a non-US credit card over the phone, either, even though they had done so only two months earlier.

- But that's OK: you can buy time for the phone in any local AT&T store. Ah, but in San Francisco in October the local AT&T stores said, "We haven't been integrated into the network yet." Nearest place to buy a national pre-pay card? "Sacramento." Naturally, no one at AT&T Wireless's call center knew this. Result: phone zeroed until a friend in LA bought a card and called the numbers in.

Compare this experience to one of my American friends, who maintains a pre-pay phone for use when he's in the UK. He arrives and it works. He buys time for it and it goes in. And you know what? The time doesn't expire. A US friend with the same phone phone emailed a couple of months ago to say he'd just discovered that time on the phone was now going to expire after 45 days instead of 90 days. So either I have to travel to the US every month and a half, or I have to keep stoking the phone up with time I may never get a chance to use.

Then, this week, having altered a credit card to a US address, I tried to buy time on the Web again. It chattered at me angrily that it couldn't sell me time because my phone was disconnected. Well, of course it's disconnected. The damn time expired which zeroed it. The good news is I may not – yet – have lost the phone number. Which AT&T Wireless reserves the right to repossess if your phone's time expires and you don't restock it for a month.

For the first three months I had the phone I couldn't set up voice mail. "We're upgrading the system to add capacity." I still, 15 months after purchase, have not received the $25 rebate phone card that was advertised with the phone. "Oh, those are going out this week," I was told in January.

Can we say "death wish"?

I will say this for AT&T Wireless: the phone more or less works more or less all over the country, sort of. It roams, and tells you so on its little screen. Sometimes text messaging (that is, the phone receives email; it doesn't do SMS) doesn't work because it's in the "wrong kind of area." Sometimes voice mail doesn't work, though I'll admit it wasn't totally AT&T's fault when I forgot the password because I'd been able to use it so rarely. Data, of course, doesn't work at all.

I started longing for a wireless phone that would work nationwide in the US back in the 1970s, when I was driving 50,000 miles a year around the country and performing as a folk musician .. To be fair, that's now pretty much possible. I bought the particular phone I did because it worked in Mechanicsburg, PA, the home of my closest friends. My UK Vodafone will roam to the US, but at great expense and, at the time I was looking, not to central Pennsylvania.

The only thing that's changed since the 1970s is that now I want data as well. It doesn't have to be WAP. It doesn't have to be GPRS. It just has to be an ordinary phone connection to CompuServe. I can live with slow. I just want my email. In Lincoln, Nebraska and Missoula, Montana and Freeport, Maine and, if it's not too much trouble, New York, San Francisco, and Boston. OK?

How long, oh Lord, how long?

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).