A tale of two wireless carriers

With plans like this, it's no wonder the United States is behind the rest of the world in wireless

Forgive me a Monday morning rant.

I received a call from Unicel last week, reminding me that they had been purchased by Verizon, and would I like to choose my new phone now? I told them that I would not, since I have a month-to-month contract to use Unicel's GSM network. I have used a wide variety of "unsupported" phones on this network for years, including a Nokia N95 and an iPhone. Never had a problem with them. Unfortunately, Unicel was bought by Verizon, and Verizon seems intent on destroying the GSM coverage in the area by forcing all Unicel GSM customers to use CDMA phones. The company has publicly stated that existing GSM users will lose coverage completely on May 17, 2009. Hooray.

Now keep in mind that Verizon is desperately clinging to the CDMA standard, and pushing it in the Northeast, while at the same time testing its GSM-based LTE 4G network elsewhere. At the risk of berating the obvious, this doesn't seem like such a great plan. According to the woman I spoke with from Unicel, Verizon is apparently turning off GSM cells in this area and instead relying on their CDMA cells, forcibly converting thousands of existing Unicel GSM customers over to CDMA phones. I can't really comprehend the logic behind this, but then again, it's Verizon, and it rarely does anything that makes any sense. I had thought that Verizon would be compelled to maintain those cells, but apparently only in six markets, not in this area. AT&T bought all the GSM services in Vermont, for example. You may recall that you couldn't get an iPhone in the whole of Vermont. Well, congratulations, Green Mountain State.

So I'm betwixt. In an odd turn of events, it seems that my wireless company is leaving me, not the converse. I wonder if I can get an early termination refund.

Of course, this is a problem. I'm amazingly uninterested in any of the phones Verizon has to offer, and I really don't want to go back to a CDMA phone anyway, since the flexibility and structure of GSM is significantly better, at least for me. Note that AT&T has no presence in this area. Yet.

In a fit of pique, I called the nearest AT&T store to me, which is actually located in a different state. I talked to the manager about the possibility of moving to AT&T even though they weren't local to me. Lo and behold, AT&T is opening a store here in the next few weeks. I might be saved.

Still unclear is the fate of the GSM cells, however. I currently enjoy full signal at my house, even in the dark crevices in the basement thanks to a GSM cell located only a mile away. Verizon phones don't work here. If Verizon actually turns off that GSM cell, no phones will work here. AT&T claims to have full coverage, and even some 3G in the area, but I'll believe it when I see it.

I called Unicel back to inquire about the fate of another line on my plan that is under contract (not month-to-month) and due to expire in July. I told them that I was fabulously uninterested in paying a $200 early termination fee since I wasn't technically leaving them, they were leaving me. Their answer was that the fee could be waived, but not if I wanted to keep the number. If I simply cancelled the other line, I could leave without an issue. If I tried to port my number to another carrier, I'd be hit with the full fee. Somehow, that doesn't seem right. I thought that number portability was basically mandatory now.

But you pick your battles. I'm apparently heading to AT&T and an "official" iPhone in the near future, bidding Unicel/Verizon good-bye. But beyond all the hassle, I'm genuinely puzzled as to why Verizon is handling this acquisition this way. It would seem to me that the best idea would be to keep all the GSM cells active and let the GSM customers use their existing phones. If Verizon is transitioning to a GSM-based network anyway, this would seem to fit the grand plan, would it not? But no, it's living down to its reputation and reducing service in this area for no apparent reason.

...and people wonder why the United States lags behind the rest of the world in wireless technology and services.