It's hard to break up with a longtime partner. Yes, they make it hard, but it's also about a feeling of familiarity, consistency — and, honestly, commitment.
I was with AT&T for 11 years.
Back in 2007, Steve Jobs did a deal with what was then a struggling cellphone provider. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, controversially, gave Apple total control of the software; in exchange, AT&T got the exclusive to sell the phone. That exclusive lasted a remarkable three years.
So that was how AT&T got me and my family. But yesterday, after three weeks of wrangling, hours and hours of phone calls, absolute lies from sales reps and managers, and two egregious price increases, I walked away.
So what happened?
$85.4 billion: That’s what Stephenson paid for Time Warner in a deal that closed just three weeks ago. So now AT&T owns CNN, HBO, Cartoon Network, Warner Brothers Studios, and the rights to March Madness.
AT&T was sued by the Department of Justice to stop the merger and fought back, saying: "There is no sound evidence from which the Court could fairly conclude that retail pay-TV prices are likely to increase."
Lie #1. My bill went from $206 a month to $273 this month. (Details in a moment). While ATT said I would save money, my bill went up. I changed plans twice. It didn't matter.
AT&T promised customers and the court that it wouldn't bundle products to force customers to take services they didn't want, or up-charge for products labeled “free.”
Lie #2. AT&T raised so-called administrative fees from 76 cents to $1.99 two weeks ago. The company tried to hide the increase like it's a tax, but it's just a price increase, plain and simple. This increase will cost consumers $800 million a year.
There’s also the pressure it’s putting on front-line sales team to sell, upsell, or “slam” customers with charges and services. Evidence of this is now public in at least one Hawaiian case, according to DSL Reports.
On at least two occasions, as I struggled to understand why my bill was going up, I was told that I “have to take DirectTV — but it's free.” Actually, there’s no longer any AT&T package that doesn't include TV, and it's not free.
Lie #3. AT&T reps on two occasions misquoted prices and removed discounts, despite promises that they'd lower my bills. They said that "unlimited" bandwidth had "limits" — which they couldn't explain, except to say "congestion" would trigger slowdowns.
The last time I contacted the call center, the recording said my call would be answered within six minutes. Fifty-four minutes later, when a call center employee picked up, I asked if she was dealing with a lot of unhappy customers. "No, not at all,” she said. “We had a natural disaster in one of our call centers, and we're having to retrain some new staff."
Lie #4. The only report of any “disaster” affecting an AT&T call center would be the firing of 101 employees in Harrisburg, Pa. When questioned, the operator suggested these jobs might be going a new call center in the Philippines, where operators “aren't trained yet."
It's all about TV.
ATT CEO Randall Stephenson has bet the company on video. Buy TV assets, invest in TV infrastructure -- and fundamentally change the AT&T offering from a phone offering to a consolidated TV/voice/data offering. Stephenson bet with 60 billion in borrowed dollars and a 108 billion total acquisition.
So you can see how, on paper, every price increase, fired phone center operator, and slammed service sale is urgently needed before the Time Warner bill comes due.
The only problem is, the bet assumes three critical things:
1). That customers want to pay for TV on their phones.
2) That customers are lazy and don't want to switch.
3) That the marketplace alternatives (like Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile) won't justify the pain of switching providers and devices.
The data site Statista notes that consumers are looking for better deals from cell phone companies: In the spring of 2017, 25 million cell phone customers were ready to change services.
A few other specifics worth reporting:
In past years, when I've reached out to AT&T about data overages, I've spoken to a “retention specialist” who was able to remove a few charges, offer some discounts, and retain my account.
But this year, for the first time, I heard on the other end of the phone staffers who were discouraged and given no tools. I was told "there's nothing I can do" about a $30 charge from a phone scammer. "Yes, it's a scam, but you picked up the call," said one operator. Or, regarding the $15 charge for 1gb of data over my 20gb limit, one operator noted, "Well, you did use the extra bandwidth, didn't you?" in a schoolmarm tone.
When I mentioned that $15 for 1GB was a massive charge for a small amount of bandwidth, I was told: "You could change carriers.”
So, that's what I did.
After 11 years as an AT&T customer, I'm now with Verizon.