Customers to AT&T: Choke on this

A growing anti-AT&T protest is threatening to bring Ma Bell's network to a standstill. The question is, will anybody notice?

My post last week about how AT&T treats its customers like losers got quite a rise out of readers. It even provoked a response from AT&T itself.

Per company spokeshuman Seth Bloom, that "You're a loser" text underneath the image on their online sweepstakes was a "regrettable mistake" and has been changed. (I checked, and yes it has.) He adds: "We value our customers a great deal."

[ See which products make Cringely's list of "The biggest tech turkeys of 2009." | And stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Robert X. Cringely newsletter. ]

Unfortunately for AT&T, it appears the sentiment is not always mutual.

AT&T bashing is apparently so much fun that Fake Steve Jobs piled on. In a blog post earlier this week, FSJ jokingly outline his plan for Operation Chokehold. This Friday at 12 noon PT, Fake Steve is exhorting the iPhone faithful to flood Ma Bell's data networks with bandwidth-hogging apps:

The goal is to have every iPhone user (or as many as we can) turn on a data intensive app and run that app for one solid hour. Send the message to AT&T that we are sick of their substandard network and sick of their abusive comments. The idea is we’ll create a digital flash mob. We’re calling it in Operation Chokehold. Join us and speak truth to power!

Fake Steve (aka Newsweek's Dan Lyons) is kidding, I think (and for a total hoot, read his inspired NSFW rant about AT&T's "bandwidth disincentives"). But some people are taking the notion seriously. Someone created a Facebook fan page (1,140 fans at post time), and iPhoners are comparing notes about which apps would suck down the most bandwidth.

Proving that it can't take a joke (or a choke), AT&T called FSJ's post "irresponsible and pointless" and whined about how that "publicity stunt" would degrade "critical communications services" for 80 million customers.

Memo to AT&T: If they're your customers, they're already intimately familiar with degraded communications services.

Me, I'm looking forward to Ma Bell's meltdown this Friday, and judging by my readers' e-mails and comments, I'm not alone. Overall, reader sentiment ran about two to one against AT&T. How people feel about the company seems to depend a lot on the quality of the coverage they're getting.

First, a word from the pro-AT&T side. A reader calling himself "junkman" writes:

Your article on AT&T's service is dead wrong. I have gone through all the carriers in Chicago and AT&T has the best coverage and pricing plans. I do now have an iPhone and have had no problems with coverage.

Like some of my more persistent readers, he directs me to a New York Times piece by Randall Strosser about how AT&T's data network is actually quite good, but it's the iPhone that's causing data disconnects. Junkman also believes me "and my magazine" are on Verizon's payroll.

Two responses:

1. I read the Strosser piece. Very nice. Really had nothing to do with what I was writing about, though, which is AT&T's attitude toward its customers, or what I and many of my readers are most unhappy about, which is the quality of AT&T's voice network.

2. I've ragged on Verizon many times in the past for its invisible bandwidth caps, and InfoWorld hasn't been a "magazine" since March 2007. Also, you can trade in your rotary phone for one with a nifty little keypad. You should check it out.

Still, the steam coming off the anti-AT&T mail is unmatched by anything I've seen over the years -- lousy service, billing problems, shoddy customer support, the list goes on and on.

For example, Cringester P. O. says he uses AT&T for Internet, landline, and mobile, and he lives in a world of hurt:

My iPhone is a life-altering device that makes me more productive and constantly connect with my mail services. However, AT&T is the burden of this indulgence. When listening to public radio while driving, the 3G service here in St. Louis often cuts out. I feel as though I have to say some sort of prayer to get a constant stream of radio programming without interruption even within the '3G' area. And when you go even slightly out of the 3G area, the regular network is like a 90-yr-old trying to run a marathon while holding onto her granny-walker.... I want AT&T to burn. And it's going to happen because there are millions who feel exactly the way I do.

This whole thread started with a kerfuffle about Verizon's ads attacking AT&T and picked up steam when AT&T suit Ralph de la Vega made noises about punishing the 3 percent of its smartphone users who use up 40 percent of AT&T's mobile bandwidth.

There is nothing intrinsically evil about charging people for the bandwidth they actually use. But is AT&T willing to take less money from customers who don't consume as much? Would it drop the price of its entry-level plan or offer a metered service option so that people pay only for what they use?

Most telecoms operate on the same principle as those 24/7 Nautilus chains. They make most of their money by selling memberships to people who work out three times in the first two weeks and never show up again. If everyone who owned a membership actually used it, the gym would be so crowded there'd be no room to break a sweat.

In this case, it seems AT&T wants to continue to collect money from the no shows and charge the power lifters by the pound.

AT&T has made $10 billion profit on $40 billion revenues so far this year. I think it can afford to suck up a little bandwidth and spend some money fixing its network. As Fake Steve nonsarcastically notes:

The appetite for bandwidth will be insatiable. The network operators that will prosper will be the ones that can keep up with the demand. The ones who don’t will get left behind. Sure, for now companies like AT&T can hang on to customers with exploitative contracts and exclusivity deals. But at some point, and I think it will be soon, the network operators will have to compete, for real, based on quality of service.

Fake Steve knows of what he speaks. Remember, he invented the friggin' iPhone.

Will you take part in Operation Chokehold? What it will take for Apple to drop AT&T as exclusive home of the iPhone? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me:


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