Part I: Prelude
I have been a loyal AT&T subscriber, one steamy summer with T-Mobile notwithstanding, since 2004. They weren’t even AT&T Wireless when I first signed up, they were Cingular. That’s how long I’ve had the same number with the same carrier, since before I was legally an adult. The carrier wars, however, have become aggressive. So much so that I could no longer sit idly by and be charged more than anyone else wanted to charge me. Sprint’s recent ad campaign, featuring their glorious, yellow coverage map, convinced me they were finally a first-rate network with first-rate coverage and first-rate speeds.
It’s all a lie. If you’re reading this, and you’re for any reason considering switching to Sprint, don’t.
Part II: Due Diligence
We begin our tale almost two weeks ago. 13 days ago, in fact, and that number will be important later on. I was looking for ways to trim the fat from our monthly budget, as I do every six months or so, and had decided $200/mo was far too much to be paying for the level of cell service we had from AT&T. 20GB shared between two lines, if you’re curious. I shopped around and around and around. I even made a spreadsheet of all the different offers from the four major carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint). Sprint had the nearest competition beat by a healthy margin, so I decided to check out their coverage map. In fact, I’ll show you what I saw:
What I saw looking at the map was that just about everywhere I cared about had, at a minimum, fair to excellent 4G LTE. This seemed acceptable, since even at home with AT&T, I only have what I’d call fair coverage. As you can see from their coverage map, my home should be something between “fair” and “best” 4G LTE coverage. Since Sprint bills their LTE speeds as just as fast if not faster than their competition in all of their newest commercials, making the switch seemed like a no-brainer. I’d save money and have better coverage… what’s not to love?
Part III: Jumping Ship
So I get the new phones, get the numbers ported, etc. The first thing I did, in my office at home, was run a speed test. It’s also the last thing I did on my AT&T phone for the sake of comparison. The last test I ran on my AT&T iPhone 6S was 13.9Mbps down, 5.23Mbps up. Not bad for two bars. When I went to run the test on my new Sprint iPhone 6S Plus… well, I couldn’t run it because I had no service my office. I went out to the living room where I picked up a whopping two bars of 3G. I go to run the speed test again… and, it timed out. I pull up Safari to see if I have Internet or not, and after ten seconds or so, Google comes up.
So, alright. This can’t be right. Just look at the coverage map: at worst, I should have “fair” 4G LTE coverage and, according to the map, I’m just this close to “best” 4G LTE reception. I decide to call Sprint and find out what the deal is. I actually ended up calling them twice. I called once from my living room, where the call kept breaking up and eventually dropped, and then again from the end of my driveway where the call kept breaking up but did not eventually drop. The representative explained to me that my reception should be just fine and that I should be receiving 4G LTE service with no problem, but that we could try a carrier update on my phone. We tried that on my phone while I talked to her on my wife’s, no improvement. She decided the best move would be to send me a Sprint microcell, which works in conjunction with your home WiFi as a cell signal booster. Feeling we’d done all we could for the night, we decided that was acceptable and that I’d go ahead with turning my old phones in to Sprint.
The next day, after doing the backup/restore dance from old iPhones to new, I wiped my old iPhones and brought them into the Sprint store. The expectation set by Sprint before you switch is that they will cover either your ETF with your previous carrier or what you owe on your old phones (up to $650 per phone). This is incredibly misleading and not at all what they do. What really happens is Sprint gives you $220 per phone as credit for your upcoming Sprint bills. So okay, I can’t exactly pay AT&T off with Sprint credit, can I? The remaining balance is provided to you in the form of a pre-paid AmEx card after you have provided Sprint with a copy of your final bill from your previous carrier. You can use exactly none of these things to “pay off” your previous carrier. The AmEx card is a reimbursement, which is fine, but the $440 in Sprint credit is just $440 I would now owe AT&T out of my own pocket. On paper, I would be made whole after about four months of not having to pay a Sprint bill due to the credit they gave me. This equals exactly jack and shit when AT&T wants their money now and is not the rosy picture Sprint painted:
While there, I asked them about how the microcell would work and they told me there was nothing on my account which would indicate I should be receiving one. Awesome, what did I spend two hours loudly enunciating into my phone for? I turned the phones in, they set me up for a microcell to be shipped to my house, and we called it a day. I spent the next week going about my business, periodically performing speed and reception tests as I did. Here’s what I found:
So, the places where I’m supposed to have “best” 4G LTE coverage, I’m getting fair to no 4G LTE at all. At home, where I’m supposed to have something between “fair” and “best” 4G LTE coverage, I get one bar of 3G. No matter where I went, the results never matched up to what was advertised in Sprint’s coverage map. The three examples I’ve shown here are the most generous of all the samples I took and there’s a reason for that: these were the only three where I could actually get Maps to load any sort of image to identify where I was. There are towns surrounding mine where I should have “fair” 4G LTE coverage or, at worst, “best” 3G coverage and I’m totally unable to pull up a map or make a phone call for more than a few seconds.
Part IV: OH GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE
After nearly two weeks of not being able to make phone calls from my house or pull up a map to guide me home, I had come to a pretty firm conclusion: the map is a lie and the coverage is garbage. It was time to undo the horror I had wrought upon my house and return us to the promised land of generous coverage and high data transfer speeds.
I contacted AT&T yesterday to see what that process would look like. I had no idea where to begin: I had traded off my AT&T phones, which I still owed money on but Sprint was paying for as part of the “join us or die” promotion, to Sprint. Sprint had promptly shipped them away to a warehouse in another state. The AT&T rep I spoke with helpfully informed me that AT&T has a 14-day “remorse period” (actually called that) where a former subscriber who has jumped ship can come back into the fold free of punishment, derision, shunning, flogging, or activation fees. Yesterday was day 13.
I left work an hour early so I could get to the Sprint store before rush hour. I explained my situation to Don, who appeared to be the manager or lead sales guy, I’m not sure which. He worked whatever magic was necessary to get my AT&T iPhones shipped back to me (well, back to the Sprint store for me to pick up) and told me what I would want to do now is go ahead to the AT&T store and have them activate our Sprint iPhones until we got our AT&T ones back next week. He also said we’ve got thirty days to give Sprint back their phones once the number port is complete. So far, I was impressed with how smoothly the situation was being handled. I apologized for being a pain in the ass and took my leave.
I headed next to the AT&T store where they reactivated our accounts, ported our numbers back, gave us new SIM cards, installed them into our Sprint iPhones… and watched the activation fail. The moment I saw the first activation fail, I knew exactly what was happening: the phones were carrier-locked to Sprint. A few more reboots and activation attempts confirmed my suspicions, so we headed back to the Sprint store. I walked in, told Don that his direction that I have AT&T activate my Sprint phones wasn’t working out, and he said to me, “Well yeah, the phones are Sprint property so they’re going to be locked to our network. There’s no way we can unlock it for you.”
So… just so we’re all clear… this guy explicitly told me to take these phones to AT&T and have them port my numbers and activate the phones. So he either knew this would be the case and intentionally misled me, or he just plumb forgot about it. Either scenario, I think, begs an apology which never came. They told me I’d have to call Sprint customer service to see if they might unlock it for me.
I’ll let that sink in for a minute.
I arrived there with phones which could not be activated, and Sprint’s solution was for me to call someone else to fix it. So I asked if one of them would be willing to contact customer support for me with their functional phones. One of them, I didn’t get his name, rolled his eyes, dialed the number, and shoved a phone at my face.
After about twenty minutes on the phone, it was abundantly clear they were not going to unlock the phones for me. Never mind that I would have to pay Sprint in full if I decided to keep the phones regardless of their locked status, or that I had already cancelled my Sprint service, somehow keeping these devices locked is still a thing which makes sense somewhere, and that’s how it was going to stay. I actually asked the representative, point-blank:
Me: So, just so I’m clear… YOU, Sprint, told me to take these phones to AT&T and have them activated since YOU, Sprint, currently have MY iPhones. YOU, Sprint, refuse to unlock those devices, and now I, the customer, just don’t have a phone for the next week. Is that an acceptable solution to you?
Sprint Rep: Yes, sir.
By this time, I was fairly angry. The kind of angry where you probably shouldn’t be allowed to talk to to person making you that way. I thanked the rep for her help, hung the phone up, and walked out of the store.
As a last-ditch effort, I stopped back at the AT&T store on the way home to see if there’s anything they could do for us. They couldn’t loan us phones as they had no loaners and couldn’t temporarily sell us phones as we both already have AT&T phones which we are paying for… being ever-so-slowly shipped back to us from Sprint. Heads hanging low, my wife and I piled back into the trusty Pontiac and solemnly headed for home. I would spend the rest of the night digging up old iPhones of the past, performing dark voodoo magic on them, and eating Chinese food.
Part V: Lessons Learned
I’m a big believer in personal responsibility. Some of this fiasco is my fault. I should not have switched carriers in the first place. I should not have given my AT&T phones back to Sprint until I was 100% positive I wanted to stay with them (although they do put a time limit on turning them in, so there’s pressure to get it done quickly). In my view, however, the lion’s share of the blame belongs to Sprint. Their coverage isn’t even a shadow of what they advertise it to be. Their 3G and 4G data speeds are a bad joke compared to those of their competition. Their customer service, both off-shore and in-store, is polite yet abysmal. And I’m still salty about Don’s refusal to even acknowledge his part in sending me on a three hour tour through cellular Hell.
This whole experience sucked. Don’t switch to Sprint. And if you do… God help you when you decide to switch back.