Sunday, June 12, 2011

Not Happy With AT&T? The network of possible reasons is expanding

As a consumer, few things annoy me as much as TV ads extolling the virtues of something that is currently not working right, like AT&T's 3G data service. About this time yesterday I went to the AT&T web page that tells me how much of the 5 gigabytes-per-month 3G data plan on my MiFi wireless access point I have used. Simply going to this page is a fine example of how to: A. annoy your customers, B. tarnish your brand. Why?

1 .The Mobile Hotspot MiFi 2372 data device for which I paid $100 is treated like a cellphone in all AT&T literature (it is not a cellphone) so I have to log into a secure page to find how much of my $60 per month 5 gigabyte data allowance I have used, even when I am connecting from the device itself.

B. The first thing the page says is that information about my minutes is not available. Duh! This MiFi device has no minutes, it just has data. The info about the data usage is below the fold. This gives me zero confidence that AT&T knows what it is doing when it comes to mobile data services.

C. I have to do this any time I want to check my usage, which is sometimes multiple times a day because AT&T keeps sending me emails warning that I am about to go over my limit even when I am nowhere near my limit. (But they will charge me if I go over the limit).

D. I get logged out of the data usage page after a few minutes "for security reasons" which means that I cannot leave the page on the screen and monitor usage in real time. (Speaking as a CISSP, I see no reason to consider my data usage protected information, and no reason for my provider to deny me constant access to it.)

Even HughesNet, the satellite Internet service provider whose service levels and bandwidth caps I have lambasted in the past, does a better job of keeping me informed, in real time and with little effort, of my bandwidth usage relative to their daily cap.

This might sound like an obscure issue with a niche product, but I believe it is the shape of things to come. Bandwidth caps are the norm for 3G and soon 4G and maybe for other services too. Consumers of capped bandwidth need ways to monitor their usage to avoid additional charges. Putting on my marketing and branding cap I would say that cynical consumers will assume that those providers of capped bandwidth who make it tough to monitor usage are hoping to rake in the extra fees for going over the limit.

Now here's the real kicker: The usage page was down yesterday. That's the page that tells me how much data I have used. And it remains down 24 hours later. Today I got another "High Usage Data Alert" email from AT&T but had to place a voice call to check my usage. It took the AT&T person who assisted me several minutes to figure out what I meant by "How much data have I used?" Then she told me I had nothing to worry about because my monthly usage cycle had started over today, the 12th. To which I replied: "Yes, I know that is what is supposed to happen, but I just got a warning message, at 4PM today, the 12th, telling me my usage was high."

To which she replied "I apologize for that, it was sent because you were nearing your limit yesterday."

This rendered me temporarily speechless because I couldn't decide which aspect of the absurdity I wanted to highlight first. So when she asked "Is there anything else I can help you with?" my response was simply to ask when the web page would be coming back. Her reply: "They're working on it but we have no exact time."

And then I turned on the television to see an AT&T ad about the amazing "network of possibilities" with AT&T data networks. I suppose one possibility is that AT&T may get a clue about how to deliver useful and accurate data to its customers in a timely fashion. Designing a more practical 3G MiFi/WiFi device might also be a possibility. Watch this space for a review of the Novatel 2372, the first device to inflict a five colored LED on color blind computer users.