Monday, March 19, 2012

The US mobile industry is hopelessly behind the times

I'm a bit irritated at the US mobile industry at the moment. In almost every other country in the world, I can walk into a store, buy an awesome phone, and walk out without having to sign two years of my life away to a carrier. I can do prepaid and, if I don't like the service, I can usually go elsewhere pretty easily. This is not the story in the US as I found out Friday while trying to hunt down either an iPhone 4S or the Galaxy Nexus S.

I started with AT&T and asked questions about the iPhone. The agent was amazingly nice and knowledgeable until I mentioned that I wanted the phone WITHOUT a contract. Then, she began talking to me like I was some kind of freak, even telling me I could forget about getting a nice phone because they all come with contracts. She asked me repeatedly 'what's wrong with a contract?' and really couldn't understand why anyone in their right mind wouldn't want to enslave themselves to a carrier. It's "only" two years, she pointed out.

That call went nowhere. But that was kind of expected. After all, it was AT&T and I didn't expect too much. Next up, Verizon.

My friendly Verizon rep explained all the wonderful options I had for smartphones (even though I told her I was interested in a particular smartphone and didn't need to know my options, and went through all of the 'affordable' plans Verizon offered (even though I started the conversation saying I didn't want a contract). When I stopped her and reminded her I wanted to do prepaid, she didn't miss a beat and said 'No problem, we'll just run a credit app and get you approved". For prepay? No. Apparently, even though many of them run on the same network, Verizon segments their prepaid customers from their post pay. I cannot simply purchase a Verizon phone (like the iPhone) from eBay and have it activated as a prepay on the network. Even though it makes complete sense that I should be able to, I can't. I have to sign a slave agreement. If I want to go prepaid, I will not get a smartphone from Verizon and will be stuck with a very small collection of feature phones. NOT ACCEPTABLE!

I am frustrated beyond belief! At this point, I am not willing to do business with either company because:

1) I'm still not willing to sign away two years of my life just to get a few hundred dollars off of a phone and the 'permission' to use it on their network and

2) I'm not going to do business with a company that tells me 'we want your business and we're willing to force you to stay here even if you're unhappy, which is what a contract does.

Now, someone did tell me yesterday that I may be able to purchase any AT&T phone online and have it activated as prepay on the AT&T network. I'll be investigating this today but I'm not terribly hopeful.

Contrast my experience yesterday with the experience of a friend of mine in the UK last Wednesday:

She wanted a nice smartphone and knew which one she wanted. She walked into a store, purchased a new phone, and put her SIM card in it. Walked out. End of transaction. No contract, no upgrade fee, nothing. Just a quick "this is what I want, here is my money" transaction where both people involved were satisfied. And, if she isn't happy with service, she can go elsewhere by doing the exact same thing.

A system like the rest of the world has makes sense. It means the mobile companies actually have to work for your business. It's more than just cool phones because the cool phones don't give them any advantage. Here in the US, there's zero incentive to give you a great experience because they own you for two freaking years and it shows.

I want to see one of the big prepaid companies step up and get some cool phones. I don't care if they have to cut a deal with a Chinese manufacturer who makes iPhone clones or whatever. I want a good service free of a contract that doesn't treat me like I'm one of the dregs of humanity simply because I don't want to sign a contract. But even if I were low income or had bad credit, what should it matter to these companies? Why would I be any less desirable as a customer? I'm giving them my money the same as a postpaid customer would be. Would my money be worth any less if I were low income or had bad credit? According to at least two phone companies (AT&T and Verizon) it would be. They wouldn't want me as a customer if I wanted a nice phone. They want me in the feature phone ghetto with a FEW low end smartphone options.

Wake up US mobile industry! You're way behind the times and it's going to start costing you customers if you aren't 'careful.

What are your thoughts?

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