Saturday, February 05, 2011


I thought that this would happen long before now, but I'm finally rid of AT&T!

I've been out of contract with them for nearly two years, and could have switched long before, but the forces of inertia and indecision kept me from doing so. This is largely an occupational hazard. Much of my job these days involves writing pre-loaded apps for mobile phones. That means we get to see and play with phones long before they go on sale to the general public; we often first get it six months before it ships, and several months before it's even announced. Particularly buggy phones can last even longer and may not ship at all, but that isn't the problem; no matter how cool any phone on the market is, odds are that I've worked on a cooler phone that I can't buy yet. Once that phone does come out, I've received the next generation, and can't bear to part with hard-earned money to get something that I know will soon be surpassed.

The end result: I'm probably the last person in San Francisco who's still rocking the original iPhone. (8GB, baby! Top of the line!)

Still, I've gotten increasingly fed up with AT&T, to the point where I was ready to pull the trigger even without having identified a suitable replacement phone. The service was OK back when I lived and worked in the South Bay, but now that I spend much of my time in the City, I just can't deal with it.

For a long time I'd been planning to switch to T-Mobile. In my humble personal and professional opinion, they're the overall best choice amount mobile carriers. Here's how it generally breaks down.
AT&T: Best devices. (This was even more true when they were the exclusive iPhone provider; even now, though, they tend to get first crack at the coolest new devices.)
Verizon: Best network and call quality.
T-Mobile: Best calling plans and most customer-friendly policies.

T-Mobile is the perennial underdog, and so they have to try harder, which they do. There's a bunch of stuff about them that appeals to me.
  • They're a GSM provider, which, among other things, means that it's trivial to switch phones. Now, granted, I haven't switched my phone in four years... but I like the idea of being able to do so whenever I want. 
  • Alone among major US carriers, they offer an unsubsidized phone rate that's cheaper than the normal rate. In other words, if you skip the free or discounted phone, you can pay less each month for service.
  • Along with the above point, they also make it easy to avoid getting a 2-year contract. As long as you provide your own phone, you can continue month-to-month. (You can do this on most carriers with a pre-paid plan, but that generally doesn't work well for heavy data-users like me.)
  • They have an unlimited data plan, which includes a 4G network that's available here in San Francisco.
So, late last year, I was all ready to switch to T-Mobile; I'd just grab an old phone for now, and then take the first dual-core Android phone that came out. But then, they pulled the rug out from under me. Their "Even More Plus" plan, which would let me bring my own phone and get a cheaper plan with no contract, was rescinded from their web site. Apparently, it's still available, but you need to go into a T-Mobile store to sign up for it. I know, I know, it shouldn't be that hard, but it was just enough of a hassle that I put off doing it for several months.

In the end, I landed with someone else: a small carrier called Simple Mobile. Simple Mobile is an MVNO, which means that they're run as an independent mobile company but use another company's wireless infrastructure. The most famous MVNO in America is probably Virgin Mobile, a prepaid carrier that runs on Sprint's network. Sprint phones and Virgin Mobile phones will get the same service whenever you make a call, but use different billing models.

Some Wikipedia research and a few Google searches revealed that Simple Mobile was:
  1. A GSM carrier
  2. An MVNO that uses T-Mobile's network
  3. A 4G carrier (again, using T-Mobile's HSPA+ network)
  4. Surprisingly cheap
All Simple Mobile's plans feature unlimited minutes, which seemed absurdly unnecessary to me. I'm currently on a 450-minute AT&T plan, and in any given month, I'll use about 40-50 "anytime" minutes, with another hour or two of nights and weekends. And yet, even with the unlimited minutes, the Simple Mobile plan cost just as much as the 500-minute T-Mobile plan that I'd been looking at. I'd bring my own phone, and pay $60 a month in return for infinite minutes, messages, and data. In contrast, today I pay $60 a month for AT&T-quality voice service with 200 messages (more than enough) and data that's technically unlimited but only on craptastic 2G EDGE.

I hate to waste food, and I hate to feel like I'm wasting minutes, but still, the math totally penciled out for me. And, again, Simple Mobile doesn't require a long-term contract, so if I found a better deal elsewhere, I could always switch again. So, away I went!

If you're getting a new number, you can do everything you want online. Fill in your details and they'll send you a SIM card in the mail. Once it arrives, punch some numbers into a web page, and you'll be set. Since I was porting my old number, I had to contact customer service. The wait was relatively long (maybe about 10-15 minutes when I called in the middle of a weekday), but once I got through, the process was painless: just provided my old AT&T account information, my new SIM number information, and I was all set. My service was available on my new phone after just a few minutes; incoming calls continued to be directed to my old iPhone for a while longer.

My next step is getting rid of this old phone. There's a website called that looks pretty promising: you select an item to sell, answer some questions about its quality, and get a quote for its value. Ship it off and they send you money. I'm pleasantly surprised to see that there's still some demand out there for first-generation iPhones, so I'll be happy to make the sale.

It is pretty funny to reflect back on how T-Mobile messed this situation up... they were super-close to gaining me as a devoted customer, and would have collected a lot of money over the years from a customer who kept their voice lines almost totally free. Instead, by making it hard for me to buy a product that they sell, they drove me to a pseudo-competitor. Granted, I'm sure there's some kickback to T-Mobile since I'm using their network, but they're only making a fraction of the profit that they would if they still made it easy to buy Even More Plus plans.

As a final bonus: at long last, I can finally actually write apps for my phone. It's pretty absurd that for years I've been able to write apps for just about every mobile platform out there except the iPhone - I can write Java ME, BREW, Android, Windows Mobile... I can even do Symbian if you hold a gun to my head. Android is my favorite platform, and finally I can make stuff that I'll actually be able to use in my daily life.


  1. Wow, Chris, I thought you'd switched to Android a long time ago. Well, congrats for finally breaking free of AT&T! So which Android phone did you end up getting?

    I finally got an iPhone 4, but that means two more years of AT&T for me. Oh, well. Hopefully all the people flocking to Verizon will free up AT&T's network a bit.

  2. Yeah, I know... I've been saying I'm moving to Android for years now. I'm currently using a cheapie myTouch, but I'm watching eBay and hoping to pick up a myTouch 4G soon. I'd been planning on getting a Nexus S, but without the dual core I was expecting, it just doesn't offer much to me.

    Good pick on the iPhone 4! It's an excellent piece of hardware, and if I could stomach AT&T service or Verizon bills, I'd snap it up in a heartbeat. Yeah, hopefully AT&T gets better now that cool people can use another carrier as well...