Friday, January 09, 2009

A footnote to the iPhone

One of the largest cell phone providers in Vermont is Unicel, and arguably one of the best in some ways: coverage, most notably. But Unicel is not one of the country's biggest providers, just one of the biggest in this area. Unicel is also noteworthy for the fact that it still uses the frequencies and protocols popular in the rest of the world, instead of the more advanced 3G networks that are gradually propogating out to the rest of the country, but which haven't come here -- partially because Vermont still doesn't even have 90% coverage at all so upgrading protocols is a low priority, and partially because some of those protocols aren't so great at handling our terrain, so it'd be even more expensive.

Last month, it was announced in the news that AT&T had finished its buyout of Unicel. (AT&T's site calls it a "merger", but clearly since when it's done AT&T will still exist and Unicel won't, it looks a lot like a buyout to me.) The news articles were very casual about this story except one aspect about which they were so excited they could burst: this means that Vermont would finally have the iPhone. Until this week, Vermont's the only one of the fifty states without it. Little mention of what would happen to the Unicel stores, or the people employed there, and no mention of what would happen to the existing customers.

Even now, mere weeks before the takeover is to happen, the news articles about it are all abuzz about the iPhone. The only comment about existing customers is this final paragraph:
As for current Unicel customers, AT&T says it will honor all of those contracts for up to a year.
That's it? Will our phones still work? Will our terms change? What about our existing bill payment arrangements? Will the technical infrastructure change? Will Unicel's towers be converted, left as is, dismantled? What will happen to coverage? What happens after that "up to a year" ends?

Unicel's web site still hasn't heard about the buyout. All they're saying is that they've expanded coverage in my area. AT&T's web site at least is aware of it, but has little to say other than to watch for more news. The merger's happening in mere days and they still have almost nothing to tell us. And we certainly haven't been contacted either.

Officially, as far as Unicel is concerned, I use a Motorola Razr. However, I long since moved my SIM into a Ubiquio 503G running Windows Mobile 6. This phone is compatible with all of the networks Unicel uses as well as almost all the other protocols in wide use; I never have trouble roaming, and I wouldn't even in Europe. But Unicel has never heard of it, and if I asked them, "will this still work?" they would give me a blank stare and probably tell me it won't work now. Before I bought it, I researched Vermont cell protocol coverage to be sure it would work fine, and it does. So how am I going to be sure it'll work after the cutover, when I can't even find out what will change, and when?

I don't even want an iPhone.

Why is it that communication companies are the worst at communication?


litlfrog said...

To me, the following "As for current Unicel customers, AT&T says it will honor all of those contracts for up to a year."
indicates that current payments, contracts, phones, hardware, minutes, and anything else covered by the contract will work the same as they do now for up to a year. Beyond that, I wonder if AT&T itself knows what to do with Unicel's existing infrastructure. To an even greater extent than personal computers, cell phones are evolving at a hyperfast pace; I suspect most people don't expect to be using the same phone in two years because the 2011 phones will contain 40% more awesome. I see what you mean about how little news coverage there's been, though. Have you thought about modifying this post and sending a letter to the Free Press or Times-Argus?

Hawthorn Thistleberry said...

Sure, existing phones will almost certainly continue to work for a year. But there's no reason they can't fulfill their contract by replacing phones with equivalents that work on another network, too; it would hardly be unprecedented. If it comes to arguing with them, I will have no leg to stand on; my contract probably provides no coverage promises on any phone but ones they supplied, so my investment in this phone could become a problem. When I chose it I knew the AT&T talks were in the air and I tried to be sure it could work on both Unicel's protocols and those used by everyone else in the area, so I probably will be fine. But it's nerve-wracking not to know.

Anyway, at the end of a year, everyone else may be ready to trade in their gadget on the newest one, but I expect this one to last me at least another couple of years. And the next one probably won't run Windows Mobile 6, so I have all the software compatability issues to face again. I don't relish that. I really like this phone.

While the Argus or Free Press might care about my concern about their coverage, I suspect that's all they're telling us because it's all AT&T is telling them. My beef is primarily with AT&T/Unicel for not reaching out to us. The news coverage is just a symptom. Maybe the reporters could give AT&T a little nudge to shake some answers loose, but... the Free Press versus AT&T?

Anonymous said...

I use AT&T and was an exclusive Unicel customer for 10 years. I live in Western NH and am wondering if Verizon will in deed keep the GSM networks up and running. If I lose those old Unicel towers, my AT&T phone will be useless. Another victim to misinformation and lies.