Yesterday, I did what a lot of people did — I stood in line to buy an iPhone. Here’s my bittersweet tale of the last 24 hours, and the story of why I may be taking my iPhone back. It’s also the story of how AT&T — even as it tries to make itself over as some kind of new hotness — remains at its heart a tired, stodgy member of one of the most hated industries in America, the cell phone carriers.
A Little Background
I’ve never really been for or against any mobile provider. They’re all bad. For a long time, my job involved a lot of travel and I’ve found that they all drop calls somewhere, they all have bad reception somewhere.
For context, we only need to discuss my last two carriers. I signed up with AT&T Wireless in 2000. I didn’t have any real problems and I had good experiences around the country and with AT&T’s roaming in the United Kingdom and France.
I relocated to Chicago and continued to use my old number (a Virginia number, just outside of DC) for a year. Then I moved into a new place and my new condo happened to be in an AT&T dead spot. I couldn’t get any real answers on how that might get fixed from AT&T, so I switched to T-Mobile because I could get a signal in my living room.
Now I live in Portland. I’ve been here for about a year and I’ve continued to use my Chicago mobile number. My girlfriend and I have a T-Mobile family plan and we’ve both kept the old numbers.
Buying the iPhone
The buying part went pretty smoothly. The line at the AT&T store wasn’t too long when we arrived around 4:15 — there were maybe 45 people ahead of us. The doors opened promptly at 6:00 p.m., AT&T brought people inside in an orderly fashion and things moved pretty fast. We were inside by 6:45 p.m.
I clarified a couple things about what I needed to do — I have a family plan at T-Mobile and will be bringing over both numbers to a new AT&T family plan, I said. No, we don’t need another phone; we’ll unlock the Motorola PEBL my girlfriend uses, use a phone from my previous stint with AT&T, or whatever. We’ve got a half dozen phones at home, most already unlocked.
I was told all activation will happen using iTunes. Sure, I can bring over both numbers. Yes, I can keep my Chicago numbers. I left happy, one iPhone in hand. The whole thing went well.
Let me preface by saying that everyone I dealt with at both AT&T and T-Mobile were really polite and did their best to help me. They were well-informed, or they managed to find an answer with a minimal amount of time on hold. The voice mail systems were a pain, as always (I found T-Mobile’s more irritating), and it took time to get to the option for a person.
Activation didn’t go so well. I downloaded iTunes 7.3, plugged in my iPhone and it promptly appeared in my iTunes devices list. As a new AT&T customer, I had the following options:
1. Activate one iPhone now.
2. Activate two or more iPhones on an individual or FamilyTalk plan.
Huh. I don’t see the “create a family plan with one iPhone and one other number” option. OK, I’ll activate this as an individual plan and deal with getting the other number moved later.
So then I get the “Transfer Mobile Number” screen. I put in my number, my T-Mobile account number and my zip code. I’m told that the number can’t be transferred.
So I call the AT&T store. They refer me to the Customer Care line, who they say can help me with something like moving my Chicago number although my billing address is in Oregon. Customer Care sends me to the iPhone Activations Line, who tells me to call T-Mobile and find out why they won’t let my number transfer. T-Mobile sends my call to the transfer service center; after 15 minutes on hold I’m summarily disconnected.
OK, so I’ll just activate the phone and port the number later. I uncheck the little box, remove my number, my T-Mobile account number and my zip code, and proceed. Pick my plan, enter my iTunes login, add some additional info, submit… AT&T is processing my activation! It may take up to 3 minutes!
So I wait. Another minute. Finally!
“AT&T requires additional time to complete your activation. You will receive an e-mail when your activation is complete.”
What?! So now I’m checking e-mail like a lab rat pressing a button for more crack. That doesn’t seem to speed up the process. I call the AT&T iPhone activations line again and ask what this means and how much “extra time” is involved. She tells me (again, very politely and very helpfully) that they’re overwhelmed and activation may take 24 hours. Nice planning, AT&T. I head off to bed, dreaming of 12 shiny icons on a black glass screen.
In the morning, I find an e-mail stamped 6:46 a.m. that tells me my activation is complete. Woohoo! I’m in iPhone heaven!
Part 2: What I find good and bad about the iPhone, and why AT&T tells me I have to give up my phone number. Portability — yeah, right.