This is a tale of first world problems, culminating in me being pissed off about getting a free phone–so I’ll say up front: Yes, I know this is petty and silly, but also, I’m furious with how AT&T has handled their transition off 3G and I’m here to complain about it.
Oh Say Can You VoLTE?
A few months ago, I received a text message from AT&T that I didn’t understand. It read:
“AT&T Free msg: In Feb 2022, we’re shutting down our 3G network and your cell phone ending in *####* won’t work anymore. The good news is that we will send you a FREE cell phone that is similar to the one you have today that will work on the upgraded network. To get the new phone go to att.com/AcceptPhone”
I was confused by this because my phone supports 4G LTE. I chalked this up to, I purchased my phone unlocked and AT&T likely thought I was using an iPhone 3G, the last phone I bought from them directly. This has happened in the past, so I ignored the message.
But they kept sending it. So I did a little research and found out that, while my phone supports data through 4G LTE, AT&T places calls through 3G. So when they take down their 3G network, away would go calling and texting for me.
The technology taking its place is called Voice Over LTE (VoLTE). True to its name, it places calls over LTE. I did a little more research and discovered that my phone does actually support VoLTE, but going to AT&T’s whitelist of VoLTE phones revealed that my phone was, for reasons unknown, not supported. I saw speculation on AT&T forums as to the reason for this, but no official answer from AT&T. Attempts at getting AT&T to whitelist it resulted in confusion and denial–I did have a lovely time at the mall, and enjoyed listening to their jaunty hold music at home.
One Phone, Two Phone, Big Phone, New Phone
I really didn’t want to give up my phone, because it still works great (and I’ve grown a sentimental attachment to it).
But slowly I started entertaining the idea of getting a new phone, because, like the rest of the country, I do like new shiny things, and I’m only so sentimental. The three things I care about in a phone are 1. A screen that’s not going to give me thumb strain 2. a battery that will last me as long as my current phone (it’s a few years old and I still get two days of charge out of it) and 3, though less important than 1 and 2, has a decent camera. The problem is, my current phone has a smaller screen than 95% of phones on the market today and it still hurts my hands to use it.
It seems virtually impossible to get all three of my criteria. The closest I could find (that was on AT&T’s whitelist) was the Pixel 4a and the Galaxy S10e. The Pixel’s battery is on the small side, but for screen size and camera quality I was willing to compromise. The problem I have with both phones, especially the Galaxy, however is that they are several years old. Android users know that getting OS and Security updates is not something to take for granted, and buying a phone that’s more than two years old is a recipe for getting left behind (not that there are many new features I especially care about, but security updates are a big deal–and yes, I know it’s silly to have an issue with getting an older phone when my own phone is aging). I shelved the idea of getting these phones.
I decided to take a look at the glorious free phones AT&T was so generously offering. Going through a maze of twisty passages all alike got me to the actual model they were offering. They offered me a selection of free phones to choose from, which was in fact 1 checkbox for one phone. Their offer was “based on my current phone,” but was a very low-end AT&T branded Tracfone with awful specs, no doubt filled with AT&T bloatware.
Highlights from the free phone's specs. Technically, Android can run on 32MB of RAM. That doesn't mean it's a good idea though.
You said it, Dan.
There was a button to choose other phones, which took me to a window that said I couldn’t choose any other phones. So, that was out. Thanks for the generous offer, AT&T, but as my friend once said on leaving a restaurant after discovering there were no Chicken and Waffles on the menu, “we’re going to pursue other options, but we will reimburse you for the lemons.”
My thought at this point was, “their network is going down in 2022, it’s only June, phones will launch between now and then, and maybe there will be something that fits all my criteria.”
Free Phones or Else
A few days ago I received this message:
AT&T FREE MSG: In Feb 2022, we’re shutting down our 3G network to make improvements to our network. We’re shipping you a new FREE cell phone to replace your device ending in *####*. All you need to do is activate the new device. You’ll find setup information in the box. If you don’t activate your new cell phone, we will automatically activate it in approximately 30 days. Once your new cell phone is activated, your current cell phone will only be able to call 911 and 611 until Feb 2022. If you need additional assistance, visit one of our stores or call us at 800.880.8581
To which my response in my head was:
Are you ******* kidding me? Are you actually ******* kidding me?
I’m not sure if this is in good faith or bad faith on AT&T’s part. I can absolutely see a world in which angry customers call them in February after their network goes down and demand to know why their phones, which they’ve been warned about getting shut down for months, are no longer working. This is a way for them to avoid that, and I’m sure a lot of people are happy to get the free phone. Having more AT&T phones in their customer pool probably also makes their maintenance burden easier.
But I do not want their ****** free ******* phone. And now they’re ******* deactivating my phone and not even giving me a ******* choice? Are you ******* kidding me? And they’re wording it like it’s a ******* gift. Wow, the phone is FREE in all caps, which makes it run ten times faster than if the phone was just free in lower case. The all caps FREE boosts internet wallpaper and improves ventilation–it’s a 60x improvement over my current phone because it’s in all caps.
You Have 30 Days to Move Your Cube
Functionally, AT&T was saying that I have 30 days to vacate my phone. The February deadline they’ve been giving me for months wasn’t real.
I was very pissed off, so I picked up the phone and actually called their number. A few minutes of jaunty hold music later and I was on the line with Schmitty the support agent (I’m substituting a fake name, obviously). I want to assure you I was very polite–I know the behavior of the company or product is never the fault of the support rep, and, having been on the other side of similar calls, I know how horrible it is to field calls from belligerent customers. But the call went like this:
“Hi, I just got a message that you’re sending me a free phone in the mail. I don’t want the free phone, I’d like to stay on my current phone until February when 3G goes down.”
“Okay, I can send you a return label and you can just put it back in the mailbox, but you should know, February isn’t a hard deadline, we could turn your phone service off any day.”
Schmitty must have been fielding similar calls all day, and sounded very tired of having this conversation. At this point though, I was very tired of AT&T.
“Okay, I’m going to go ahead and leave AT&T. My phone supports VoLTE, I can get it whitelisted on a different network.”
“Okay. Do you want me to transfer you to cancellations?”
And so ended my brief but touching time with Schmitty the support rep.
So Long Phone Plan!
I’ve been an AT&T customer since they bought Cingular. Or Cingular might have bought them and then changed their name–I’m not really clear on that (I think one Bell bought another Bell and the bells rang so hard AT&T came back from the grave and did a bootleg Thriller). I’ve never had any great love for them, but I’ve never had any reason to switch. Seventeen years on, it’s time to re-evaluate the cellular landscape and see who the right fit is. I know off the bat a few carriers who will take me and my current phone, but there are some more reviews to dig through before then. Recommendations welcome.
That’s my boring story of entitlement. I wanted to put this out there for anyone who didn’t know about AT&T’s inelegant switch off 3G or anyone who is similarly pissed off and wants a comment section to say so. I’ve been a customer to a number of services that have nearly annoyed me enough to switch, but this is the first time I’ve ever been this motivated to make a change.
Opinions in this post are opinions, and the opinions are my own. I make no claims about AT&Ts service, services, offerings, or support. AT&T is a trademark of AT&T Inc. This is a recounting of my experience and nothing else.