Thursday, June 17, 2010

AT&T Contracts, Terms of Service and Plan Terms – observations of interest

I visited my local AT&T store today to confirm that AT&T iPhone pre-ordering is done. They’ll have some phones in store 6/24 for those keen to wait in line and be disappointed. You can still pre-order via Apple, but I’ll be on the road 7/14 so I’ll wait until late July to get my iPhone 4.

I took advantage of my AT&T visit to ask some staff questions. One of the odder things about AT&T is that, despite being evil even by publicly traded company standards, their staff are remarkably personable and fairly knowledgeable.

I had 4 questions. The last two are interesting.

  1. Why did my bill jump $30?
    Answer: I added unlimited family texting at the start of a billing cycle, so “pay ahead” meant I paid for most of 2 months. Most mobile phone services are added with a 1 month pay ahead.
  2. If I buy an iPhone 4 for my son, can I give my wife the iPhone 4 and give him her 3GS?
    Answer: They’re fine with that switch. He’ll get a new contract of course.
  3. Can you validate that as of Nov 2009 a contract-free non-iPhone “smartphone” connected to AT&T network will trigger data plan enrollment?
    Answer: No – they disagreed. A non-contract smartphone added to the network will not trigger an automatic data plan enrollment [1]. The Nov 2009 contract change only brought non-iPhone smartphones in line with iPhone policy. If you buy one under contract your “service agreement” will mandate one of the new data plans ($15, $25, etc). This directly contradicts what I was told over the phone, but see the next question.
  4. I’d like to see my current contract, terms of service etc and the new one I’ll get with my new phone.
    Answer: Duck, dodge, weave, cough, deer in the headlights, “it’s on the web site” ….

Asking to see a contract brought the manager over in a hurry. He acted like I’d asked to see his porn collection.

After a bit of work I ended up with an outdated (7/31/2009) Terms of Service document and a generic “Service Agreement” that seems to be a current “Terms of Service” document. He couldn’t come up with anything reflecting the 11/09 policy changes.

Here’s what I ended up thinking:

  1. For AT&T a “contract” is an agreement to pay them money for services for a fixed duration. A multi-phone family plan has a single contract.
  2. Customer obligations and fees are some kind of sum of 2-3 different agreements. Some are tied to a phone number, some to a “class” of subsidized phone, and some to the iPhone alone.
    • Terms of Service: Lays out the basic terms on how you can use the service. I think it’s determined by “class of phone” such as “dumb phone” and “smartphone”.
    • Service Agreement: Seems identical to the “Terms of Service” booklet – same headings and language. Google found the current copy of this Service Agreement.
    • Plan terms: At one time the iPhone had different Plan terms from other smartphones, but now I think they may be aligned. I think Plan terms are more or less under user control; that’s what you get when you add or remove things from the web site.
    • iPhone other: “If buying an iPhone, you agree that use of the iPhone acts as an acceptance of the Apple and third party terms and conditions included with the iPhone.”
  3. The AT&T staff really do have trouble verbalizing how this all works. I used to think AT&T was treating their service agreements as corporate secrets, but they really are public. I now think it’s more a complexity problem -- especially due to the now passing iPhone exemptions (Note you still can’t unlock an iPhone when a contract ends [2] – it is the only AT&T phone that cannot ever be unlocked.) There are a lot of moving and changing parts that sum to the net user and phone specific agreement.
  4. The confusion about what happens when you put “Standard” phone GSM in a “smartphone” is understandable. I don’t think either of the AT&T reps I spoke with really know what will happen. I tend to think this crew is more correct, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

There are a few noteworthy clauses in AT&T’s current generic service agreement:

Your Service Commitment begins on the day we activate your service. You have received certain benefits from us in exchange for any Service Commitment greater than one month. … If your Service Commitment includes the purchase of certain specified Equipment on or after June 1, 2010, the Early Termination Fee will be $325 minus $10 for each full month of your Service Commitment that you complete. (For a complete list of the specified Equipment, check Otherwise, your Early Termination Fee will be $150 minus $4 for each full month of your Service Commitment that you complete...

The enhanced ETF is not iPhone specific, it also applies to the iPAQ Glisten (lord, that would burn!) and the Samsung “Jack”. Imagine the horror of paying that fee on an iPAQ Glisten.

I didn’t realize my non-AT&T roaming was potentially limited ….

… If your minutes of use (including unlimited services) on other carrier networks ("off-net usage") during any two consecutive months exceed your off-net usage allowance, AT&T may, at its option, terminate your service, deny your continued use of other carriers' coverage or change your plan to one imposing usage charges for off-net usage. Your off-net usage allowance is equal to the lesser of 750 minutes or 40% of the Anytime Minutes included with your plan. AT&T will provide notice that it intends to take any of the above actions, and you may terminate the agreement…

and I bet this clause means AT&T can cut off my Google Voice calls to Canada at any time [3] …

… Unlimited voice services are provided solely for live dialog between two individuals. Unlimited voice services may not be used for conference calling, call forwarding, monitoring services, data transmissions, transmission of broadcasts, transmission of recorded material, or other connections which do not consist of uninterrupted live dialog between two individuals. If AT&T finds that you are using an unlimited voice service offering for other than live dialog between two individuals, AT&T may, at its option terminate your service or change your plan to one with no unlimited usage components. AT&T will provide notice that it intends to take any of the above actions, and you may terminate the agreement.

Of course several phones do support conference calling, so they can’t enforce this one too often. They also have to give notice.

The bottom line is that mobile phone contracting is hideously complex. Apple tried to change that with iPhone 1.0, but they failed (I give them full credit for trying). I’d love to see an ambitious Attorney General take this topic on.

See also:

[1] Of course if data services are used it will incur massive charges, but that’s another matter. My son’s number is enrolled in a $5/month AT&T service that allows me to disable his AT&T network data access. There are also relatively painless hacks that do the same thing.

[2] I’d like to see the contract/agreement where this is documented. I wonder if that’s agreed to as part of the iPhone agreement: “If buying an iPhone, you agree that use of the iPhone acts as an acceptance of the Apple and third party terms and conditions included with the iPhone.”

[3] Actually, they can’t. With the original Google Voice service I called a number, which then rang my mother’s number in Montreal. Now I use their (crummy) iPhone web app, and they call me first. So I think the current arrangements skirts the current contract. Also, does this mean a Robocall to my mobile phone is a violation of my contract?

Update 7/25/10: Astoundingly, when I picked up my new iPhone I asked the question again -- and was told my son would definitely be enrolled in a data plan even though his phone is not under contract and has no subsidy and he'd be using a contract-free iPhone. In other words, exactly the opposite of what I was told a few weeks ago. I have a post pending with contract excerpts. I'll be filing a complaint with the MN state attorney general and with the offices of our federal Senators.

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