La Donna T-Mobilé

May 15, 2008

Fewer than six weeks after signing up for a two-year contract plan with AT&T, I learned last night that Verizon has installed a soon-to-be-operational tower less than a mile away. They’re coming to the area with their Broadband PCS B-block holdings in MTA037, Submarket 3, which were acquired in FCC Auction 4 back in nineteen-ninety-friggin’-five. Who knew?

Being the unrepentant mobile geek that I am, for the last two years I’ve been drooling over a particular plot of land less than an eighth of a mile from where they eventually constructed the new PCS antenna, thinking it would make a great spot for a privately owned tower that could be leased to most, if not all, of the major carriers in the area. As previously noted, the closest tower is six miles from here, which in the words of Sister Teresa, my high school guidance counselor, sucks fermented llama balls.

To be certain, this is a sparsely populated region, and the probable ROI of installing equipment to serve fewer than 5000 people offers little appeal, even to me. The low population density coupled with the shorter range of the 1900 MHz frequencies makes me wonder just who Verizon is targeting with their new service, as Alltel is already deeply ensconced in the area as the carrier of choice for those living on the fringe (literally and metaphorically), and none of Verizon’s plans can compete with Alltel’s MyCircle offerings.

My first reaction to the Verizon news ran something along the lines of “hot diggety rhubarb crap,” but after careful scrutiny of their plans and service, my initial ebullience has waned somewhat to a lukewarm “meh,” with light-to-moderate “who-gives-a-shit” forming later in the day.

See, I’ve uncovered a secret.

Well, sure, not a real secret. Anyone can find out about it if they look in the right places, but it might as well be a secret to three out of the four big wireless companies. Rather, two of the three big companies if we don’t count Sprint, and with their recent sun-as-black-as-sackcloth tribulation, I’m not sure we should. All the more reason for those clowns to pay attention.

Wi-fi, baby.

T-Mobile’s HotSpot@Home service allows customers to make calls over wi-fi, using either a specialized T-Mobile-branded router optimized for voice communication, or any off-the-shelf wireless router. Those on select two-year plans can opt to pay a $10 monthly fee for unlimited wi-fi calling from any open hotspot in the country, but anyone with a T-Mobile wi-fi-capable phone can use the service with their existing plan. Even those of us on prepaid.

When I first caught wind of this gig after it launched in the middle of last year, I raised a skeptical eyebrow and scoffed so hard I took out a condor in the Sonomas. We’ve all heard nightmare stories about VOIP quality and reliability, and now they want to charge me extra to connect to their shitty, poorly deployed network using my own router? I provide the connection and T-Mobile charges me to use it. Sure. Thanks, but no. I’ll call you. Or not.

After they changed their prepaid plans to allow unlimited nights and mobile-to-mobile for a dollar a day, I signed up. Not long after that, I tried the Samsung Katalyst on my home router using the pay-per-day plan, and it just works. It works hard. Like Scrubbing Bubbles on Red Bull and crystal meth.

Voice quality is clear, with very little compression noise, and the wi-fi connection is reliable. The phone does lose the network from time to time, but it seems to pick it up again in short order and maintains a minimum of 2 wi-fi signal bars anywhere in my house. Basically it’s like having a tower in the living room.

Are you listening, Sprint? A company with similar infrastructure liabilities (1900 MHz) found a way to overcome its most glaring shortcoming, a lack of adequate coverage, and turn it into what amounts to its most attractive feature. People aren’t fleeing Sprint in panicked droves because of the lack of a lightning-fast data network, but because of poor service. As far as the paying customer goes, “service” means coverage footprint, call quality/reliability, and selection of handsets. Anything else is incidental; if people are satisfied with those three things, you’re golden. With everything else being equal, the handset is of utmost importance, as it’s the end-user’s only daily physical representation of your service. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to evade the damaging association that a bad phone can wreak upon your network, whether fully justified or through simple consumer ignorance. And there’s no shortage of either bad handsets or ignorant consumers, believe me.

The call quality on the Katalyst is top-shelf, whether on PCS or wi-fi. T-Mobile coverage is now supremely adequate, and their MyFaves plans can be trumped only by Alltel’s MyCircle. T-Mobile offers a total of twelve free, no-rebate-required phones on their website. Sprint advertises exactly one free phone, the Sanyo SCP-3200, and their plan structure is confusing, at best. Having their voice plans listed in mutant sibling Nextel’s sandbox o’ poop and razorblades doesn’t help customers figure out what they want, either.

Part of Sprint’s trouble might be identity; when I look at their logo, I don’t know what the hell to think. Are they a phone company? A walkie-talkie company? A wireless company? Are they Sprint or are they Nextel? Why is all their stuff yellow and black? To me, yellow and black says “DANGER! FLEE!” and it might have a similar subconscious effect on others, as well.

With their HotSpot@Home service, T-Mobile has solidified its standing in the wireless industry as a provider that wants your money, sure, but they’re not too picky about how you access their network. Versatility, mission clarity, and perception of value are vital elements of success in any business, and now T-Mobile has each of those things stockpiled like illicit corned beef sandwiches during a national delicatessen emergency.

Certain other providers might want to peek over the fence to see what’s going on, before they’re remembered in the same breath with names like Omnipoint and Powertel, both of which are now part of Deutsche Telekom. And Deutsche Telekom is also the parent company of…

Anyone care to take a guess? Anyone?


Good Morning, America, How Are You?

May 7, 2008

How often do things work out exactly as planned? I originally envisioned this blog as a kind of prepaid cellular service guide, a place where prospective prepaid consumers could handily glean all the pertinent facts and foibles of various pay-as-you-go providers, including comparisons and specific phone reviews, all while being mildly entertained in the process. Kind of like the Branson, Missouri of prepaid sites. Minus the Tom Jones impersonators and Kenny Rogers.

But the truth is that there are already dozens, if not hundreds, of sites with much more comprehensive information than I could ever hope to collect and collate and present in a coherently fantastic fashion. And frankly the thought of collecting and collating and presenting all that data fills me with a kind of greasy, unnameable dread, so much as to pose a dire threat to my sixteen-year sine vomito record. And as far as personal bodily ejecta records go, that’s one I’d like to hold on to, so I’m not taking any chances.

Thus the inevitable gap between imagination and creative reality grows a little wider, but then again I don’t have to sing “What’s New Pussycat” in front of sixteen hundred swooning early-generation Baby Boomers clad in skin-tight, lime green polyester pants suits. All in all, a fair trade-off. Sometimes life is sweet.

But when a particularly good deal warps into our sector and opens hailing frequencies, I’m bound by my original prepaid prime directive to let you know about it. Please read…on. Can’t find…witty…segue. Losing…all…cognitive ability.

T-Mobile To Go’s recent addition of a pay-per-day option offers three distinct benefits; unlimited 7pm-7am night calling, unlimited T-Mobile-to-T-Mobile calling, and a ten-cents-per-minute rate on regular calls, all for $1 per day, charged only on days which the phone is used for voice calls. This instantly catapults T-Mobile To Go past the likes of AT&T’s GoPhone, Verizon’s InPulse, Virgin Mobile, Boost, and Tracfone, issuing to these competitors a hearty, venti-sized, 1900Mhz Deutsche Telekom finger from its perch high atop the prepaid value obelisk.

For some, the per-day plan holds no attraction. Those who’ve attained Gold Rewards status on T-Mobile’s previous lone prepaid option appreciate the one-year, $10 renewal feature, which is understandable. (After adding $100 to their prepaid accounts, T-Mobile’s pay-per-minute customers can extend their service by one year simply by adding a $10 prepaid card, giving them just-to-have-it cell service for about .83 cents per month after the initial $100.)

With the pay-per-day plan, service is good for 90 days, regardless of the refill amount added. This equates to a just-to-have-it yearly cost of about $40, or $3.33 per month, with four 90-day $10 refill cards added over the course of twelve months. Still an awesome deal, even for the low-use customer.

There are, of course, some drawbacks. For the longest time, until about two days ago, I was T-Mobile’s biggest detractor, as their RF coverage is blatantly poor in many places, including where I live. Their prepaid phone selection is ho-hum; the Nokia 2610 that I used to activate my per-day service has been a pleasant surprise thus far, but the rest of the over-the-counter retail lineup is comprised solely of Samsung handsets. We’ve been down the proverbially foreboding Samsung-GSM alley before, so unless you can throw your Samsung GSM phone out the nearest window and bounce it off a tower stanchion, I’d think twice about slipping your SIM into one of those sinister contraptions.

Another drawback is the somewhat expensive texting rates of .10 cents for each message sent, and .05 cents for each received. While not at bad as GoPhone’s extortionate per-use messaging cost of .15 cents for each message sent or received (AT&T offers messaging bundles for much lower rates, which may be purchased every month only by calling customer service and hacking through a thicket of fifteen tedious prompts), I’d like to see a more economical texting option, even if it includes a higher per-day rate for unlimited texts.

Some might bemoan the lack of unlimited weekends, but considering that the $1 per day charge buys unlimited any-number calling fully half the time, from 7pm to 7am, there’s little to complain about here. The closest equivalent plan if used every day on GoPhone Pay-As-You-Go would cost over $50 per month, with $20 for 3000 night and weekend minutes and the $1 per day access charge. Verizon’s InPulse offers a $1 per day plan that features unlimited mobile-to-mobile, .10 cents per message in or out, and .10 cents per minute all the time. Not completely horrible, unless you don’t know anyone else with Verizon.

If you live in a strong coverage area, along with all other factors considered, T-Mobile has made a bold move that demands the heavy-use prepaid consumer’s serious consideration. Along with their recent 3G rollout in New York City, it makes me wonder what else they might have up their sleeves.

Whatever it might be, it’s gotta be better than lime green polyester pants suits.