Friday, February 25, 2011

The iPhone for a Penny!

With the excitement of Verizon getting the iPhone earlier this month, our position was "watch AT&T" for great deals. Well, here they come. AT&T now offers the iPhone for a Penny! These are 3GS, 8Gb refurbs with "cosmetic blemishes." Hey, it's a 'Scratch & Dent' sale!

We have been on the Android bandwagon partly because of the price of the iPhone, but that situation is changing. AT&T is also offering a number of other deals including Free phones, Free Overnight Shipping and Free Activations on new and additional lines of service.

If owning a new iPhone is anything like owning a new car, a 'Scratch & Dent' model gets you past the first apprehensive month. You won't be paranoid about dropping it.

On a related note, why is AT&T advertising 4G phones when they don't yet claim any 4G coverage? Is this a marketing effort to fool us, or or they just helping us get ready for their big 4G introduction next summer? Maybe they're working ahead to keep us from having to stand in those long lines? Gosh that's thoughtful.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Millions of Cell Sites

AT&T has been increasingly dependant on wi-fi to offload some of their data hogs from their cellular network. At the Mobile Summit in Spain, T-Mobile admits the same thing. T-Mobile initially established their HotSpot service to gain a marketing advantage with home cell-sites they could charge us for. AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless were trying to grow their offerings with a "femtocell' (micro-sized cell sites) at a monthly fee. We were an early advocate of buying your own Femtocell without the monthly charge. My how things have changed.

Now instead of the carriers trying to 'help' you with better coverage, they're helping themselves by offering more handsets that can make calls whether you're on their cellular network or wi-fi, some can exchange each type of network seamlessly. To that end, AT&T has also been building more wi-fi hotspots. You might call this the 'iPhone Effect.' Too much data demand has actually given us more coverage, even if it's in our own home.

On a related note, Alcatel-Lucent introduced at the same conference a cell site and antenna the size and shape of a rubic's cube. The idea is cell sites no longer need to be on top of tall towers, they can be just above our head. How about "More bars in more bars!"

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Curse of Doing Right

We wrote about 2 wireless companies recently, US Cellular and Cincinnati Bell, and how they deserve kudos for their customer-friendly behavior. We have long seen US Cellular as tops among larger carriers, and today they were awarded top ratings for customer service from JD Powers. I guess this is bad news, "No good deed goes unpunished."

In the days since, both carriers have reported fewer wireless customers. If this trend continues, only a few large carriers will survive, and that "few" could diminish to 2. In major markets where most of us live, we just can't patronize any small carriers. What could be the bigger problem is wireless users, living in markets where these great small companies do operate, preferred to jump aboard AT&T to get the iPhone or join Verizon Wireless, maybe for the same reason.

The small carriers depend on the Big 4 for nationwide roaming, and the little guys are having increasing trouble getting reasonable roaming rates from them. Can you see where this is going? Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love in Cincinnati

For Valentine's Day we thought we would share one of the wireless carriers that we really Love. Cincinnati Bell Wireless is doing almost all the right things to make them one of the top carriers in their corner of the world. From the southwest corner of Ohio (plus parts of Kentucky and Indiana) they're offering competitive plans, great prices on phones and innovative services.

At just over 500,000 wireless customers, Cincinnati Bell is just below the Top 10 of cellular carriers but they could move into Big 10 if any further consolidation occurred among the top carriers, or Alltel suffers some serious customer erosion. Cincy Bell is tied to the local wireline operator which gives them some serious advantages including communications bundles and wireline/wireless calling circles.

There was a time when we thought Cincinnati Bell would be absorbed into AT&T, but AT&T built their own network there so C-Bell either benefits or suffers from that separation. AT&T remains as a primary roaming partner outside of southeast Ohio, but not the only one. Those of us living outside of Ohio can only look with envy at the availability of such a competent operator, especially those of us who live within the 17-state territory of the former Qwest Wireless, a now-defunct wireline/wireless carrier that couldn't make a go of it with over a million customers.

There are a handful of other small carriers we Love, but Cincinnati Bell is the largest of the smallest, especially when you consider they have over a half-million customers all in one tiny corner of one state. It will be a sad day if they disappear, unless they combine with another small operator. How many here remember the original Bell Telephone?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Good News at Sprint

Sprint announced today that they added over 1 million new customers recently. I have been combing through all the data available and I can't find a clear reason why. In the words of CEO Dan Hesse, it's all about improving "the customer experience" and "reduced churn." With all the wireless buzz about the iPhone and Verizon vs. AT&T, it's hard to believe Sprint can make headway just by making customers happy. Something is making new people sign up and old customers stay.

I haven't found any clues in Sprint newsgroups or in their products. Can it really be that Sprint is growing by actually providing a better "customer experience" rather than dropping prices or improving the network? They must have some better 'retention' programs or customer service reps with better verbal skills. No matter...Go Dan, Go!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

US Cellular Makes US Smile

Last summer we moved US Cellular up to the top of the Mountain Wireless Ratings, and in October we cheered as they further improved the lot of the wireless consumer with their Belief Project. We just got around to reading the latest Consumer Reports to find they concur with our evaluation that US Cellular belongs at the top of the wireless charts. This time it's good news in Wisconsin.

US Cellular reports over a million of their customers have joined the Belief Project, a benefit program that provides earlier and better upgrades to their loyal customers including no contract obligation after the first period. What a gimmick! Good customer service!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Winter in Wisconsin

Not all dark clouds in the Badger State are caused by the weather. The takeover of the Alltel network by Element Mobile in Wisconsin has meant dark days for both some Element customers and the company itself. We reported the challenges in cheese country almost a month ago and the skies haven't cleared yet.

I spoke with Element's Director of Marketing, Dan Kowalke who expressed his concern and appreciation for all Element customers and admitted the process hasn't gone exactly as expected. I wanted to know how many affected users were able to make the transition without difficulties and he was unable to provide an exact number. To their credit, Element has tried several avenues to make amends that include account credits and additional support at Element stores. They also get kudos for keeping the door open for all customers, happy and unhappy, to add their views on Element's own Facebook page.

Mr. Kowalke reported that the transition from Alltel had been planned for a year and Element was proactive in providing new handset guidance to a certain number of their ex-Alltel users. Reading the Facebook wall it looks like they should have been proactive with a larger number of customers. Apparently, Element must address the issues of these wronged customers one at a time, instead of with system-wide updates.

Element has jumped out of the gate with several local promotions which will indeed help them stand out from the national carriers, and some of that work has resulted in new, and happy, customers. But if your phone or Text or Web access isn't working, it's hard to get a warm fuzzy about your wireless provider. Element may lose some business from this, and, as usual, we take the side of the consumers who aren't getting the service they're paying for. But we need more Element Mobile's in the country: local people who are keeping the Big Bad Wolf carriers from our door and are making wireless the locally-responsive business it should be.

If you gotta leave Element to get your service restored now, keep in mind that it'll be Element who, eventually, will be one of those keeping the rest of us from getting ripped off by Big Bad and his brothers. If we just didn't get the 'Element of surprise.'

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Data Roaming Brick Wall

We saw this day coming. With Verizon Wireless and AT&T sitting on all the marbles, they have no reason to let any of the other carriers play the game. While voice and text roaming agreements between smaller carriers and the Big 2 continue, such is not the case with data roaming. Recently T-Mobile has taken their case to the FCC that AT&T will not allow T-Mobile users to roam on AT&T's (upcoming) 3G network. AT&T says they are still "in negotiation," but T-Mobile says they're talking to the hand, and the hand ain't listening.

While the major carriers are required by law to provide roaming voice and text services, there is no such requirement for data. This leaves some big holes for smaller carriers like T-Mobile. We reported earlier this week on our Facebook Page that a very small GSM carrier in Bozeman, Montana, Big Sky Mobile, also could not come to a mutually-beneficial roaming agreement with either AT&T or it's Alltel predecessor. That means Big Sky can't have coverage outside of their home market anywhere in Montana, at least not without charging an arm and a leg.

T-Mobile has also considered the Sprint/Clear 4G network for roaming cooperation, but that deal looks like it won't proceed without some even bigger obligations (read: money). With data, we may not necessarily need to pair GSM carriers with GSM carriers. Including WIMAX or LTE in new wireless devices shouldn't be that much of a problem. What is a problem is that the Top 2 carriers really don't need to cooperate with the small guys.

Yes, the spectrum belongs to the public. And the public can use it, as long as we pay Verizon or AT&T to use it outside the metro areas. Now how much do we miss the old Alltel?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wireless in National Parks

Maybe it's the below-zero temperatures outside that has me thinking about getting away to somewhere else. In preparation for the warmer travel season, I have been working on updating our map and cell tower information in US National Parks. Several years ago the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) noted the proliferation of cell sites in National Parks. We watched their reports and followed as much progress of wireless in the parks as time would allow.

In the years since, there has been much discussion about individual cell sites in specific locations, all considered on a case-by-case basis. My concern was that some "rule" would come about either banning wireless or conversely, encourage wireless across the entire National Park System. After watching this for almost 3 years, it appears it has been handled at the local level in a thoughtful manner with opportunities for public input. The only Park Service "rule" was to seriously consider all applications for wireless services.

The most thorough review was conducted by Yellowstone National Park. That report recommended some areas could use more wireless service, and others needed to disguise existing facilities. That process has been followed in other federal areas each with their own discussion on the issues involved.

The point was raised that the wireless carriers aren't really trying to serve a few hikers in a park, but more of the areas with a large number of visitors, or users who might use lots of wireless air time such as full-time residents of these parks and adjacent areas. "Safety" has not been much of a documented justification of wireless in these areas, but "convenience" certainly is. People have survived the National Parks for decades without cellular service.

We support wireless in our parks, but only in those areas where there are already well-developed facilities. As was pointed out, hikers prefer a silent cell site in an inconspicuous location to a motor home equipped with generator, entertainment devices and all the other trappings people feel the need to bring with them when 'getting away'. Just keep your phone on "silent" and your voice on "whisper"...please.