Yay! Free of Sprint's clutches at last!

2006-02-25 13:09

Okay, so, long ago (1997, in fact), I decided that it was about time for me to consider a cell phone. I ended up going with Sprint PCS, one of the early competitors in the then-new digital phone market.

It didn’t suck, anyway. The phone worked in most of the areas I cared about. First incoming minute was free, which saved me a lot of hassle. I didn’t use the phone very often, but when I needed it, it was there. After a couple of years, the phone failed, and Radio Shack gave me a free on-the-spot upgrade to a newer model. That worked too.

So, up through maybe 1998, 1999, I was pretty happy. Then things started going downhill.

Sprint used to have a data service, called “wireless web”, where you could use your phone as a 14.4kbps modem. It worked. $5/month to have it, and it just used regular minutes. That was fine. Slow, maybe, but workable. I used it a lot. Around this time, they started letting you add a phone to an existing account, and share minutes, so I got my spouse a phone. Everything’s fine so far.

But when my dialup phone was starting to get old and unreliable, there was a problem. See, they didn’t have that service anymore. Or maybe they did. Every Sprint rep I spoke to gave different answers. Some said it was still available. Some said it was being phased out. Many of them said that it was technically impossible on Windows.

What was interesting here was to note that they never said they didn’t know; they made firm pronouncements of authority, even though it’s obvious some of them were wrong.

Anyway, this is about where things started going badly. At one point, I spent a fruitless 20 minutes searching Sprint’s page for a number to call to reach customer support. There wasn’t one listed anywhere I could find. The closest I could find was a form to fill out to request a callback. I used a customer service form to complain… And got back an absolutely surreal response saying that they understand I want them to call me (which is not what I said), but that they can’t, but I can call them at the following number… Great. It’s actually the answer I want, but it’s presented in a stupid way.

But the real pain doesn’t start until the Treo 600. The Treo 600 is the most unbelievable piece of crap I ever had to deal with. Mine was replaced five times during the year it was under warranty. Not cheerfully or willingly; one time they insisted on me sending them $600 for a replacement phone that they would credit later when I sent in the old one. The real, serious, problems started the day I bought the phone.

There was a $150 rebate offer. The instructions for the phone system to verify eligibility for the rebate didn’t work. I spent over an hour on the phone with Sprint customer service, being given runarounds, before I got them to put me on hold for fifteen minutes so they could try it and confirm that it didn’t work. (You were supposed to enter a number at a prompt. Whether or not you even began hitting digits, half a second later you were told the number was invalid.) Eventually they said to just fill out the form and send it in, and they’d cover it if it didn’t work. Obviously, it didn’t, and after a few more hours on the phone a couple of months later, I got the credit.

During this time, I was trying to use the Treo. It’s intended to be a PDA/phone, based on PalmOS. In theory, you can use it as a PDA and as a phone. Unfortunately, the PDA side is insanely unreliable. I am one of many users who consistently had a problem where, after being in use for a month or so, the PDA would stop working, and if you reset it, it would just loop forever on the reset screen. Worse, even if you were smart enough to have backups, your recent backups would all be corrupt. Rumor has it there was a database that would overflow. In practice, if you simply didn’t use the PDA features, you could use the phone.

Now, that may not be Sprint’s fault. However, there were software updates for the Treo 600 that every non-Sprint vendor provided, and Sprint didn’t, and it’s hard not to think that this may have been part of the situation.

Now let’s get to the part that was Sprint’s fault. The Treo 600 can be used as a wireless modem. You can hook it up to your laptop and get internet access over it. Sprint does not sell this service. Not for any price. If you want to buy network access through Sprint, you are required to buy a PCMCIA connection card and use that. They say that works only with Windows; of course, they say that about the Treo, too. Sprint’s attitude towards Mac and UNIX users is pretty much one of unbridled contempt. (Note that the connection card, being PCMCIA form factor, can’t even be put in most Mac systems.)

Why won’t Sprint sell this service? It works. The internet is full of pages describing the process. Two companies were selling commercial products to make it happen. Sprint refuses to sell it. They won’t accept money for it, and if they catch you using it, they will cancel the network access service plan that makes it work.

I asked them, multiple times, about this. I found out that other companies were selling it for $75/month. I asked Sprint if they would, for $75/month, let me use my phone as it was designed. They said no.

Up to this point, Sprint’s behavior is mostly merely totally incompetent. It gets worse.

edited to add this, 3/3/06. I forgot about this one.
A while into our experiments with multi-phone plans, they announced a new feature that would give us essentially unlimited calls between phones on the plan. So we tried to set that up. And they did, supposedly. The first month we used this, we got charged for many hundreds of minutes of calls between phones which were supposed to be on this, because they somehow set it up wrong in a way they couldn’t explain. In theory they were to refund the difference, but I think they refunded rather less than they were supposed to; I just didn’t feel like dealing with it anymore. It never happened again, but it was still ridiculous.

A while back, we got a new phone added to my account, bringing me to a total of four lines. We were going to have the product replacement coverage on this, because it was going to live at a college, but decided it wasn’t cost-effective. I asked them to move that coverage to my Treo, which was nearing the end of its warranty, and which was a $600 phone. (Well, $600 to buy. They once, while still charging $600 for Treos, offered me $75 trade-in for it.) They said they would do this.

A few months later, I noticed that the plan was still on the phone I didn’t want it on. I called to request that this be changed. They refused, stating that the plan couldn’t be moved to a phone I’d had for more than 30 days. I told them that, in that case, it was useless, so could they please cancel it? At this point, they revealed their secret: Although I’d told them six months earlier to cancel the plan on that phone, they were keeping the money.

This crosses the line from incompetence to fraud.

At that point, I decided to become an ex-customer of Sprint. I did some research. I started looking at competitors. One of the competitors was T-mobile, and I had another occasion to do business with them, so I tried it. I bought one month of access to their wireless hotspots. It worked fine, but I cancelled after the month because I didn’t have any use for it at home; it was just convenient while at a convention once.

Well, I got billed for two months. So I wrote to say “hey, I thought I was getting one month”. They wrote back The Letter. Nearly everyone has gotten The Letter; it’s the document which proves you really are in the wrong. They busted me fair and square; I cancelled one day into the second month.

Now, the thing I normally do is complain a bit, with some hope that they’ll reverse the charge; I would sort of expect them to. I didn’t, with T-mobile, because The Letter finished off with the explanation of how they were reversing the charge.

That’s right. Where Sprint admitted it was their fault, and charged me anyway, T-mobile proved (correctly, I have to admit) that it was mine, and reversed charges anyway.

Yesterday, my Sprint contracts were all definitely up. It took me about half an hour to verify this. The Sprint customer service system hung up on me when I made an error entering a phone number. No option to retry; it just told me that I needed to call from my phone and hung up. I eventually got to someone, though, and found out my contracts were up.

I called around to T-mobile and asked questions. Would they sell me thethered internet? You betcha. $20/month. We only have cables for some phones in the store, but you can get other cables if you need them. I decided to move to T-mobile. I went to the store, picked out some phones. 5 of them, in fact. We began doing the account setup. Unfortunately, there’s a block on my credit report, and Trans Union won’t authorize a credit check without calling me… At home.

So the guy in the T-Mobile store immediately offered me a $50 discount on the phones to make up for the hassle. … Okay. So, running around happens, I get the phones. The new phone (a Motorala v360) is designed the way it shoulda been all along. Rather than a weird proprietary Palm/Handspring USB interface, it shows up as a standard USB modem (once you select “data/fax” connection in settings). It works with the instructions I can find on any of a dozen web pages.

The setup isn’t perfect. There are a few things that didn’t work perfectly on the first try:
1. My account wasn’t properly flagged for the wireless internet stuff. This took a call to customer support. I got disconnected by the voicemail system with weird errors, so I just hit 0, and got a real person. The real person forwarded me to tech support. There was a delay, but instead of listening to horrible music for half an hour, I was able to leave my name and number and get a call back. The person who called me back got the wireless working very quickly; rather than insulting me or arguing, she accepted my claim that it “probably” wasn’t my UNIX system, but that maybe my account wasn’t set up, and fixed that without hassle. It was working within five minutes.
2. It turns out that T-mobile’s shared phone plans can’t have area codes from multiple states, so my mom’s phone has to either change numbers or be on a separate plan. (It’s not a problem that Rah’s phone is physically in michigan, as long as the area code is local, which it is.)

But… Even if my mom is on a separate plan, we can have five T-mobile phones for about the same we were paying with Sprint, possibly less. Unlike Sprint, they are willing to sell and support the feature of connecting my laptop through the phone. The service agreement to get decent prices on phones is one year instead of two. The service staff have not obviously lied to me, and have admitted when they weren’t sure, and even gone and done research. T-mobile staff have gone out of their way not to rip me off.

In short, I am a very happy camper. In a couple of days, when the new phone reaches my mom, we can port her number over to it on a separate plan, and then all will be well.

To be fair to Sprint, a great deal of my frustration just has to do with how unbelievably sucky the Treo 600 is. I didn’t even get into the nightmare of needing to use two cables to connect it to a laptop to get a reliable network connection…

Peter Seebach

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Comments

  1. so how do u hook up a v360 to a laptop to use as dialup connection?

    — larry · 2006-05-21 22:31 · #

 
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