AT&T drags T-Mobile into the pit of despair

AT&T intends to swallow T-Mobile for $39 billion -- so much for decent call quality, customer service, and low-cost data plans

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. I'm not talking about Michael Corleone and the Mafia. It's worse -- I'm talking about AT&T.

Literally just yesterday I had the following conversation:

She: We're running out of minutes. T-Mobile has a pretty good upgrade deal, but that means signing another two-year contract.

Me: Sure, let's go for it. We like T-Mobile. I have no problem committing for another two years. It's not like they're AT&T.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Drawing from his own history with the company, Cringely concludes AT&T is strictly for losers. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter and follow Cringely on Twitter. ]

Now, of course, AT&T is swallowing T-Mobile in a deal worth $39 billion -- so much for that.

This isn't the first time this has happened to me. I used to be a Cingular customer, and I liked the company, which offered decent phone quality and good customer service. Then it was swallowed by AT&T. Call quality turned into crap. Customer service? A nightmare.

I had DSL service from a regional carrier a few years ago. It got snapped up by AT&T too. I've been a cable customer ever since.

Last year, when my AT&T wireless contract was finally up, I breathed a sigh of relief, ditched my Windows "smartphone" for Android, and jumped to T-Mobile. I should have known better. Assuming the deal goes through with regulators, I'll soon be back in telecom hell.

AT&T claims that the T-Mobile deal will improve its crappy phone reception and poor Internet access. In my experience, though, AT&T routinely takes good things and turns them into offal.

T-Mobile has $20 unlimited data plans. If you think AT&T is going to offer $20 unlimited data plans, I got a bridge in Arizona I want to sell you.

T-Mobile has an extremely well-trained customer service squad. I mean, I can be pretty awful to a customer support rep when I'm steamed (and nothing makes me crankier than stupid technology snafus), but talking to T-Mobile's Zen-like service reps usually calms me right down. What are the odds of AT&T -- the poster child for terrible customer service -- retaining that?

Also: T-Mobile usually hires spokesmodels like the luscious Catherine Zeta Jones and that dishy brunette in the pink-and-white polka dot dress [video]. AT&T has Luke Wilson. I rest my case.

There are a few positives, I suppose. T-Mobile customers may get access to the Apple iPhone and local 4G networks faster than they might have otherwise. But I can't say I'm anything other than miserable. And I'm not alone.

As I write this, a CBS TechTalk poll shows that 77 percent of consumers oppose this deal. Here's The Atlantic's Daniel Indiviglio whacking it with a stick:

Consumers will be another big loser -- probably. Most of the time when consolidation occurs in an industry with few participants and high entry costs, you see oligopolistic economics become even worse. Firms can set prices higher than if there were more competitors in the landscape. Technological progress also generally slows, because there's less incentive to compete.

But that assumes that AT&T and Verizon don't ramp up competition even more fiercely now that they'll be near equals. Could they start lowering mobile plan prices and providing bigger discounts on devices? It's possible, but unfortunately, oligopolies tend to move in the other direction, making consumers worse off.

You say you're a Sprint/Nextel customer and you're happy about it? Don't get too comfortable. I'd be surprised if you weren't part of the Verizon family within the month. Very soon there will be two major U.S. wireless companies.

And then, who knows? Maybe just one. AT&T/Verizon -- one telecom to rule them all.

At that point, I might be willing to give up my cell phone entirely. With any luck, by the time the regulators get through chewing on that merger I'll be in the Old Geeks Home, where it won't matter any more.

What do you think -- is AT&T-Mobile a good idea? Dial in your opinions below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "AT&T drags T-Mobile into the pit of despair," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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