AT&T: Strictly for losers

Shoddy customer service. Poor network coverage. Brain-dead marketing. What's next for AT&T? How about bandwidth caps and metered data plans for iPhone users?

On the heels of AT&T's disastrous attempts to fight back against Verizon's clever "there's a map for that" ad campaign (Luke Wilson? Is that all you got?) comes more bad news for those who've hitched their smartphones to Ma Bell's wagon.

In a speech to a tech conference this week, AT&T suit Ralph de la Vega hinted that his employer is considering plans to bring home more bacon by slaughtering its data hogs -- making its wireless subscribers (i.e., iPhone owners) pay by the megabyte or live with bandwidth caps.

[ 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 Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Per Matt Hamblen, de la Vega said:

The first thing we need to do is educate customers about what represents a megabyte of data and...we're improving systems to give them real-time information about their data usage. Longer term, there's got to be some sort of pricing scheme that addresses the [heavy] users.... We are going to make sure incentives are in place to reduce or modify [data] uses so they don't crowd out others in the same cell sites.

So, to recap: The only reason to pick AT&T as your wireless provider is the iPhone. In virtually every consumer survey, it lands at the bottom of the heap. It already charges an arm, a leg, and other vital bodily parts for a mandatory "unlimited" data plan. Now it wants to charge by the megabyte and/or put in bandwidth caps.

Why is the world's largest telecom being such a total asshat? Apparently it's doing everything it can to win the Worst Company Ever award.

Meanwhile, things over in Ma Bell's landline division don't appear to be much better. AT&T is running a "Help Yourself and Win" sweepstakes that's not doing it any good in the PR department. Participants vie for Four Grand Prizes -- a gift card worth $2,500 for buying a computer from Apple, Dell, HP, Sony, or Best Buy -- plus another $8,000 worth of Amazon and Starbucks gift cards for 180 runners-up. Sounds good, right?

To win, you must visit AT&T's sweepstakes site, hand over your e-mail address and phone number, and take a brief "trivia" quiz consisting of three questions:

What can you do if you are hearing noise or static on your regular phone line?

You have dial tone, but you aren't getting any telephone calls. What can you do?

Your phone does not ring when you have incoming calls. What can you do to resolve this issue online?

Here's a hint: The correct answer in each instance is "Visit AT&T's customer support repair page to report your problem and troubleshoot online." (Not that answering the questions correctly means you win. Your name must still be pulled out of a hat.)

I don't know what you walk away with from this, but here's what I get: AT&T landlines are noisy and trouble prone, and they have problems accepting incoming calls. Also, AT&T would much rather shunt you off to a Web page than deal with you directly, and it thinks you are a complete and utter boob.


It gets worse. Cringester A. H. swears he saw the words "You're a Loser" flash across his screen seconds before the official "Sorry; you're not an instant winner today" graphic displays. Sure enough, perusing that image's properties shows the alternate text that will appear if your browser can't display it: "You're a Loser."

I am not at all surprised. When you treat your customers with this much contempt, you can't think of them as anything but losers. I don't see how Apple can continue its exclusive relationship with AT&T for much longer. It's becoming an embarrassment.

UPDATE 12/14: Got an email in response to this blog post from Seth Bloom, a spokeshuman for AT&T. Here's what Seth had to say:

Thanks for pointing out the message some have seen on the Sweepstakes page.  The truth is, we value our customers a great deal.

This language is a regrettable mistake on the part of our sweepstakes vendor and we apologize to our customers.  While the language is not intended to be seen, and in fact cannot be seen by the vast majority of visitors to the site, we are working with our sweepstakes vendor to remove it right away.

FYI, they have now fixed the alt language tag to read "Sorry, you're not an instant winner today." The image, however, is still called 'title_janky.gif'; janky is apparently a cross between 'junky' and 'skanky', per The Urban Dictionary.

Are AT&T's customers chumps? Is the iPhone truly worth it? Weigh in below or dial me direct: Operators are standing by.

This story, "AT&T: Strictly for losers," was originally published at

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.