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Sidebar: TGSD or 'The Great Sprint Debacle'

I signed up for a Sprint PCS phone after going to a retail Sprint store and asking if it were possible to access the Internet using a Sprint phone. The salesperson said, "Yes," and sold me a cable, a phone, and a Sprint PCS plan. Then, I went to the Sprint PCS Web site and downloaded Sprint's software for using phones as tethered modems. It was F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C!!!

Fantastic ... except that Sprint's policy in 2003-2004 was not to allow customers to use their phones as modems! Alas, I didn't learn about this gotcha until months later after I had started using their service. The way this happened is that as I told business associates and friends about Sprint's ability to provide Internet access via phones, they would sign up with Sprint and start using their phones to access the Internet.

After a couple months, friends started calling me to warn me that Sprint didn't want customers to use the phone to dial into the Internet. My friends were finding $100 charges on their monthly Sprint PCS statements and when they called Sprint, customer service told them they weren't allowed to access the Internet with their phones. If the customer persisted in escalating this nonsense to a customer service supervisor, the charges were backed off their statements, but they were warned again not to use their phones as modems.

Oddly, the Internet access charges didn't appear every month on my friends' statements. And the charges never appeared on my statements, even though I had some months where I used the service extensively.

In hindsight, it felt as if a human were running a database query every so often perhaps as a capricious boss demanded it. When so commanded, he or she dipped into the ocean of packets to see if there were any "packet criminals" using their phones as modems. I came to call the random Sprint charges, "The Sprint PCS Random Internet Penalty Charges" (SPCSRIPC).

When I heard from my friends about the SPCSRIPC six months into my two-year contract, I went straight to my nearest Sprint PCS company-owned store. "You're charging penalties to access the Internet with your phones," I said. "What is going on?"

Sprint salespeople: "You can't do that!"

I then demonstrated on the spot how, in fact, I could do that.

Sprint salespeople: "You're not supposed to do that!"

Me: "Why?"

Sprint salespeople: "Because ... just because we're told not to let customers do that."

If you have teenagers, you probably have experienced telling them to stop doing something because of your own vague sense of unease. When they pushed back, you caught yourself not really having a good reason to tell them for not doing whatever it was they were doing. This is called "jerking your kid around." Sprint PCS was jerking me around, and I was in the position of the frustrated teenager.

The company-owned store personnel would say haughtily, "Oh yes, you must have signed up with a Sprint PCS franchisee. They are selling things they shouldn't."

Selling things they shouldn't? Defining things that should and should not happen is what contracts are for. Their contracts are probably downright draconian, spelling out completely what is OK and what is not OK for the franchisees to sell.

My guess is that the problem was not extra-contractual behavior. The problem was that Sprint PCS had not seen what was going to happen when it set up the contracts and when it built its infrastructure. Something simple like a "packet distintermediation" took place.

  1. Sprints contracts were set up assuming all high-bandwidth users would use PCMCIA cards.
  2. The infrastructure was put in place to meter all the PCMCIA packets.
  3. Then a decision was made that phones could be allowed to provide access.
  4. Then, the assumption was made that phone users would never use more than trivial amounts of network bandwidth.
  5. A decision was made not to meter the tethered phone connections to the Internet.

When phones started disintermediating the packets that Sprint assumed would only flow through PCMCIA cards, the corporate weenies folks did not like what was happening. But it was too late. The contracts were already in place.

Obvious questions that Sprint PCS wouldn't answer were:

  • Why does Sprint PCS's network allow me to dial in with my phone if they have a policy against it?
  • Why are tethered phone users not charged every month they use the phone as a modem?
  • Why is the enabling software for Internet access made available for free on the Sprint Web site if it is against Sprint's policy to let customers have tethered phone Internet access?
  • Are the "engi-nerds" at Sprint PCS at war with the "marketeers"? Providing the technical services that customers need in spite of the complaints and whining of marketing speaks volumes about a cultural conflict.

But, for me, it got better. Once I realized that Sprint PCS really really didn't want me to use my phone as a modem, I looked around for alternatives without a "worry tax." The worry tax was a "psychic" tax I began paying after I learned Sprint didn't want me to access the Internet with my phone, but when I did it anyway. I was terrified that a secret Trapdoor of Destruction was going to spring open and the Sprint PCS Random Internet Penalty Charges would wreck havoc on my Sprint PCS account.

The next best thing to a USB-tethered phone was the Sprint PCS PCMCIA-based data card service. Where the USB-tethered phone was discouraged, the PCMCIA seemed to be encouraged by Sprint. So, I signed up. The deal, the Sprint PCS on-the-phone salespeople told me, was that the PCMCIA-based service came with a two-month guarantee of no charges over $80 so that I could figure out which sized plan I needed. The PCMCIA card-based service as I recall was "fast, fast, fast!" But actually, I think it was the same speed as the tethered phone.

So guess what my bill was at the end of the first month? Of course, it was $500 for 150 megabytes of traffic!

When I called Sprint PCS customer service, I learned that they didn't know about the Sprint PCS salesperson's "no charges over $80 a month for the first 3 months" guarantee. Suddenly I felt like a chicken trampled over by an elephant.

Some people love this kind of situation (see Consumerist's Verizon Doesn't Know How To Count). But, not me. For me, the big lesson is that cellular sales advice and what actually happens after you've signed the contract are positively correlated. That is, unless you have geeky needs. In that case, the more geeky your needs, the lower the correlation. With some key features such as Sprint PCS' guarantee of "no charges over $80 for the first 3 months," the correlation may be zero.

The worst thing about dealing with giant bureaucracies providing wireless technologies is that they are like elephants dancing among chickens. Once again, post a comment, or drop us a line if you have an experience to share. Posting our experiences of being stepped on might help us "chickens" help each other avoid being crushed!

Next time in Part 2, I'll give you a detailed how to for getting a Mac and Treo 700p connected via Bluetooth and on the Internet using Verizon's BroadbandAccess EVDO service. See you then!

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