What If I Have No Cell Phone Service? Will They Let Me Out Of The Contract Then?
Posted on by Jon Colgan
It’s not a mystery why people hate wireless carriers. Everyone knows someone–or is someone–with a story to tell. At CellBreaker, I hear these horror stories often. This week I talked to two someones with stories that appalled even me.
My first conversation was with former Sprint customer Bobby Abtahi.
Fifteen years ago, Bobby worked for Sprint. He’d been a customer ever since. It’s rare nowadays to stick with a company for that long–especially a wireless carrier: Bobby is not a consumer with unreasonable expectations. He also has a firm grasp of contracts. He’s an attorney with a private practice in Dallas, Texas. Before that he was a city prosecutor, and before that he was a “Big Four” tax attorney. Sharp guy and a former Sprint fan. Then, in 2012, Bobby’s cell phone service became increasingly unreliable.
The reception got worse recently. Over the past twelve months, it just became unbearable. I’d be sitting in the courtroom trying to access case documents on my phone with DropBox, and I had no signal. A major metropolitan area, and I couldn’t use my phone. Same thing in DFW [airport]. No signal. Are you kidding me? Clients couldn’t get a hold of me. I was literally losing business.
During his last six months as a Sprint customer, he called repeatedly to report the problems and ask Sprint to fix the issues. Nothing improved. So, he decided to leave Sprint. He asked to be let out of the contract with no early termination fees. Sprint said no. He asked again. Still no. Numerous times Sprint denied his request.
Excuses, excuses, excuses. They would apologize and offer me a credit. ‘Here’s $100. Thanks for being patient while we look into it.’ No, I want you to let me out of the contract. I don’t want a credit. I just want to be able to pay for cell phone service and get it.
As an attorney, he had no doubts in the soundness of his position. He explained to the Sprint reps that he simply wasn’t getting what he bargained for; he wasn’t getting what he paid for. Still the reps refused to let him out ETF-free. He decided to take the Sprint phone reps’ discretion out of it by finding a material change that he considered adverse to him. He would identify such a change, call Sprint, and cite the terms of service. Then Sprint would have no choice, he thought. But Bobby soon learned just how stealthy Sprint was.
Sprint makes materially adverse changes often, but customers seldom notice in time. It’s not that consumers don’t realize that carriers breach contracts; it’s that most consumers can’t afford to pay close enough attention to notice. Time and attention are precious, we all know. As an attorney, Bobby’s time is particularly valuable. In this sense, he’s a carrier’s ideal opponent. How many more man-hours can Sprint’s $15/hour phone reps afford to burn arguing with an attorney whose time is worth, say, $300/hour? Bobby couldn’t afford to play Sprint’s protracted games. “I found many opportunities to switch, but each time, I missed the deadline for objecting.”
In the end, Bobby couldn’t wait any longer. His cell phone is his primary mode of communicating with friends and clients. He needed reliability. He called Sprint to cancel his contracts, and he paid a $586 early termination fee to get out–to get out of cell phone service that, arguably, he never had.
My second conversation was with former T-Mobile customer Katy Krassner.
Katy is the online media strategist for Duran Duran (and by the way, its pronounced “catty”). She has worked in the entertainment industry for twenty years and had been a T-Mobile customer for thirteen years. According to Katy, T-Mobile has always had a tight relationship with the entertainment industry, and she had long enjoyed the perks of being both a T-Mobile customer and a member of the entertainment industry.
But the problem was that T-Mobile’s cellular network has always struggled to deliver as promised. T-Mobile wanted to woo the entertainment industry, but for many entertainment industry folks, the carrier’s fledgling, unreliable network negated the draw of shiny perks. Nevertheless Katy remained loyal for thirteen years.
I stuck with it through a lot. I even became friends with the local T-Mobile store employees. Our kids went to the others’ kids’ birthday parties. Even as many people I worked with in the entertainment industry used other carriers–such as Verizon, AT&T and, at the time, Sprint, because T-Mobile didn’t have the same type of coverage while we traveled–I remained a loyal T-Mobile Customer.
Even where Katy lived–New York City–there were veritable T-Mobile dead spots.
When I became a mother and took my son to his music class at Go Fish on 220 E 86th St, New York, NY, ironically, three doors down from a T-Mobile store, and all the other moms got cell service in the downstairs classroom but I didn’t, I remained a loyal T-Mobile Customer. When I took my son to Barnes and Noble on 150 E 86th St, New York, NY, and went downstairs to the children’s department, and had no service even though I saw many people on the phone, I remained a loyal T-Mobile Customer. When I would drop my son off at pre-school at 1190 Park Avenue, New York, NY and lose service the minute I walked in to the building but no one else around me did, I remained a loyal T-Mobile Customer. When I would go to the AMC Loews Orpheum Movie Theatre on 1538 Third Avenue, New York, NY, and dread if the the movie I chose was playing downstairs, knowing my sitter would not be able to reach me even though I often heard other phones vibrate around me, I remained a loyal T-Mobile customer.
Katy was, in short, the kind of customer any struggling carrier should love to have.
In 2013, Katy moved about twenty miles outside of the city to Pelham Manor in Westchester, NY. On day one in her new home, she discovered T-Mobile had no signal there. Her four T-Mobile phones became battery-operated bricks.
We were dismayed to find out that we got NO service on our smartphones. We both got the SOS signal. When we drove around the area, we would have intermittent service. We began to ask neighbors who their cell phone carrier was and not one person had T-Mobile.
Katy asked T-Mobile what her options were. One national T-Mobile rep advised her to buy a signal booster to install in her home (a prescription that would have surely fattened that rep’s commission check). But when she went to her local T-Mobile store to pick it up, the staff confessed that the booster would not solve her problem. Sure, T-Mobile would have squeezed a few extra bucks out of her, but the local rep said “that unless we had one bar of service on our phone, a booster would not help us.”
By the way, Katy’s no-signal problem was not an anomaly. T-Mobile knew it had almost no coverage in Pelham Manor. That’s why T-Mobile had, earlier in 2013, applied for permits to expand its network infrastructure there. But when Katy moved to Pelham Manor, the network expansion work had not yet begun. The no-signal problem was publicly documented and ubiquitous to that area. But this did not sway T-Mobile’s stance when Katy asked to be let out of her contracts with no early termination fees.
After giving T-Mobile an opportunity to solve her no-signal problem, the problem persisted. So, Katy canceled her four T-Mobile lines. She was told by the staff at her local store and by a national rep in the retention department that she would be charged no early termination fees. No signal equals no early termination fee–that’s fair right?
I got a call a few days later saying that I would, indeed, be charged a $200 termination fee for each of my phone lines–a total of $800. I told the woman on the phone that beside the fact I would not pay that fee, how could they do that to me when T-Mobile could not provide me with service?
She determined to be a squeaky wheel. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford it; I was just furious.” Her friends at the local T-Mobile store sided with her and tried to help, “telling me that I had probably just spoken to one bad apple and surely T-Mobile would . . . attempt to work this out.” Nope. Her friends at the local store lacked the authority to resolve her issue, and the national reps she spoke with refused to waive the fees. So, she escalated her fight T-Mobile’s executive office. Their response? Pay up.
I received a call today from someone in corporate services at T-Mobile. I thought surely they were calling to maybe even apologize for how I’d been treated. Instead I was told that they reviewed the coverage map–and the article on ExteNet that someone in escalation had passed along–and it had been determined I was breaking my contract because T-Mobile had coverage in the area–even though I didn’t get any where I lived.
Notice this sleight of hand. T-Mobile’s stance is that coverage in an “area” is sufficient regardless of how many chunks of that area lack coverage. Imagine a pie chart segmented into two colors, red and blue. Red accounts for 5% of the pie and blue 95%. If T-Mobile takes the pie to be the “area,” then it doesn’t matter, according to the logic it offered Katy, that 95% of the slices have no coverage. This smacks of gerrymandering, the shady tactic of segmenting electoral districts according to voter inclination rather than geography. Katy was among the 95% of the “area” unfortunate to live in the blue segment.
No one but T-Mobile would call this fair. Katy couldn’t believe it. She responded by email one more time, and Mike Sievert replied.
Katy, thanks for your note and follow-up. We’re all about being fair and doing the right thing. My colleagues have looked very closely at your situation because we wanted to make sure we fully understood it before making a determination. If there are important facts that we don’t know about please make sure to communicate them with Art Lucero (copied). Thanks again for giving us the opportunity to sort this out. I’m really sorry if it lands in a place that doesn’t satisfy you.
Now, if you read Mike’s above message as I did, you’re probably thinking, “what did he just say?” Exactly what Katy was thinking. Mike offered no detail to indicate that he had even looked at Katy’s situation, nor did he give any further details regarding a resolution. She emailed one last time: “I am not clear about your response.” Mike never replied.
Months later, Katy said T-Mobile sued her to collect the early termination fees. “I paid my bills. I’m not a fraudulent person. I just didn’t pay the early termination fees, because I don’t owe them.” Due to her position as online media strategist for Duran Duran, Katy has a lot of fans, over 5,000 followers on Twitter alone. Even since leaving T-Mobile, she’s peppered her Twitter feed with hate for T-Mobile, and frankly, can you blame her?
There are 117 million of these stories every year in the US.
On average, 36% of US wireless subscribers flee their carriers every year. Phone service billing issues were among the top five fastest-growing complaints in 2012. Are you surprised? As in Bobby’s and Katy’s accounts, carriers often levy unfair early termination fees, threaten collections, coerce consumers into conceding defeat. In Bobby’s case, the tactic was to waste his time, and in Katy’s case, the tactic was to intimidate her. Carriers are good at getting what they want. So, too many consumers either pay the early termination fees or stay with a carrier despite not getting what they pay for. Bobby and Katy paid the fees.
It’s to bad they didn’t know about CellBreaker sooner, Bobby and Katy both agree. CellBreaker could have gotten them out of their contracts with no early termination fees and saved them a ton of time.
How exactly? Winning a dispute with a carrier is like running a foot race. CellBreaker gives consumer tools to go farther faster, like having a car in a foot race: the CellBreaker advantage. Our software automates the consumer side of the dispute process and does all the work. Before long, carriers realize that they can’t compete economically and choose instead to give up.
All told, CellBreaker customers invest about ten minutes. It’s a sweet deal. Most consumers who engage in disputes with carriers invest about twenty man-hours to get to a stopping point, but even then, that stopping point is rarely the resolution they’re seeking. Bobby looked at CellBreaker.com and recognized this time-savings point right away: “It’s genius, a great idea.” Katy had a similar reaction, but she focused more on the blatant unfairness element. She said only, “I wish I would have known about you guys–to see some justice for me and everyone else who has been bullied by cell carriers.”