Back in March, I dropped Sprint and became a T-Mobile customer. It wasn’t that I’d heard anything wonderful about T-Mobile, but I’d heard plenty of people talking up the new Android-powered G-1 phone and unfortunately, in the U.S., a cell phone is generally tied to a single carrier. (It is possible to go between T-Mobile and AT&T, but I’m not sure that’s really saying much.)
The G-1 phone is actually pretty cool. It’s not so much a phone as a handheld computer which coincidentally allows voice communications. Just a couple days ago, at no cost to me, I was able to turn my “phone” into a GPS with turn-by-turn voice prompts. I tried it out on the route to work and it’s pretty good, when you make an unexpected turn, it recalculates the route pretty quickly. (So if you were planning to give me a GPS for Christmas, sorry, you should cross that item off the list. Definitely not the kind of thing the CEO at Garmin wants me to say.)
But although the phone is wonderful, T-Mobile kind of sucks. I used Sprint for eight years and aside from an occasional dropped call, never had a problem with voice coverage. With T-Mobile, even sitting at my house which supposedly has “good” coverage, dropped calls are a fairly common experience; and a few months back, I discovered a stretch of interstate up in Pennsylvania which had no voice coverage whatsoever. (If you look at a mobile carrier’s coverage map, the coverage is generally most intensive along the interstates.)
What really bothered me though was that T-Mobile didn’t work with emergency services.
Botched Emergency Calls
On April 23, I was driving home from North of Baltimore and spotted a car broken down in the center lane of I-695. Fortunately traffic was fairly light at that hour, or else someone could have hit this thing at high speeds. In Maryland, they ask you to dial #77 for emergencies on the Interstate, so I did. The phone rang and the voice at the other end answered, “Hello, Virginia State Police.”
If you don’t have a map handy, it’s more than 50 miles from Baltimore to Virginia. Depending on traffic, likely more than an hour’s drive. And while I’m sure the Virginia State Police would be willing to pitch in, it really would have been a lot closer for the police up in Pennsylvania. The Virginia State Police connected me to their counterparts at the Maryland State Police barracks in Rockville. Since that’s still nowhere near Baltimore, they attempted to connect me to a different barracks in the Baltimore area at which point the call got dropped. (To be fair, I’m not sure whether that was due to T-Mobile, a switching issue, or a fumble-fingered police dispatcher.)
When I called T-Mobile customer service the next day, they were happy that I was OK and agreed that this was absolutely unacceptable. But they denied responsibility for the misrouted call and said I would have to take it up with whoever runs the cellular network. What?! T-Mobile doesn’t operate the T-Mobile cellular network? They couldn’t explain that one.
On June 1, I was on I-270 near Rockville and came across a recent accident with no police on the scene. Not trusting T-Mobile, I called 9-1-1. It’s supposed to be a universal emergency number, right? Yeah…apparently not. The operator said she’d transfer me to the state police, but if we got cut off, I should either call #77, or else a 10-digit phone number that there was no way I was going to remember. Before I could explain this, the call was transferred and sure enough, the call got dropped.
Not a very good pattern so far, is it?
On June 21, I was on I-270 near Urbana and came across debris in the roadway. Not an emergency so much as a potential for an accident as people tried to dodge it. Hoping that the previous call had been a fluke, I dialed #77 to report the problem. Just like before, the phone rang and the voice at the other end answered, “Hello, Virginia State Police.” Same story. Transferred to the Rockville barracks, transferred to one in Frederick County and then, as usual, the call got dropped.
Unlike the call to 9-1-1, this was clearly a problem with T-Mobile, so I called customer service the same day. This time around I was told that not only was it not T-Mobile’s problem, but because it was with the #77 number, I would have to discuss it with the Maryland Transportation Authority.
Aha! So according to T-Mobile, the Maryland Transportation Authority runs their cellular network! (Silly me, I thought all they did was to make E-Z Pass too expensive to be worth the bother.)
Living in the DC area, it was perhaps inevitable that I’d develop a degree of cynicism. No matter how much they claim to value you as a customer, big corporations really don’t care. They just see you a convenient source of money. Unless, of course, the media happens to glance at them.
Going to the Media
For the past several years, I’ve been following Rob Pegoraro’s Fast Forward column and Faster Forward blog on the Washington Post’s web site. Rob covers consumer-oriented technology trends ranging from Facebook, to the latest services from Google, to the various cell phone companies.
Rob agreed that one would think emergency services might be kind of important and he contacted T-Mobile’s PR department about the issue. They brought an engineer into the loop, but in the end, they assured him that it must be a one-time isolated incident.
Now I could certainly believe that explanation if the problem had only occurred once, or if I’d been somewhere near a state line. I’d even be willing to bet that misdirected emergency calls are a common occurrence along the Clara Barton Parkway — it runs right beside the Potomac river, the boundary between Maryland and Virginia. But neither of the fouled up #77 calls took place anywhere near the state line.
On July 29, I finally had a bit of a breakthrough on the subject.
I had to call T-Mobile that morning for something completely unrelated (and by the way, voice prompt systems without numeric options are an absolute abomination when you have laryngitis) and after we got that issue resolved, the representative asked me how the G-1 phone was working out for me.
I was still feeling a bit surly after wracking my voice against the voice prompt system, so I replied “The phone is wonderful, it’s T-Mobile I could do without.” Which led to an explanation of the problem with #77.
Instead of the usual song and dance, this rep actually went and looked up T-Mobile’s list of short-codes for Maryland:
#301 — Police non-emergency, Baltimore only.
#701 — Text link for the hearing impaired.
#811 — Call before you dig.
And that’s it. They didn’t have one for the state police! Not in Maryland anyhow. They do have #77 set up in Virginia, but seriously, routing me there from the Baltimore beltway still seems a bit less than optimal.
I’ve spent the last several months trying to figure out what my next step is. Take it up with the state Public Utility Commission? Write a letter to my representative in the state legislature? Pass it along to the local paper to see if they want to chase after it? (As nearly as I can tell, someone at the Washington Post must have decided that the problems with T-Mobile as a cell provider aren’t really newsworthy.)
A Successful Call
On November 10, I was traveling on I-270 when I encountered a car which had broken down in rush hour traffic. The driver had managed to pull over to the side, but there was no shoulder in that area. Opening the door would have resulted in it being knocked off. Stepping out of the car would have been fatal.
With very little hope, I reached for my phone and dialed #77. The phone rang, and for the first time ever, the voice on the other end said, “Hello, Maryland State Police.”
At long last, T-Mobile was finally able to connect an emergency call to the proper authorities. How long will this last? Your guess is as good as mine.
As for me, I still have 16 months left on my contract with T-Mobile. If I cancel the contract, I’ll be saddled with a $200 early termination feet. If I switch to either Verizon or Sprint, I’ll have to buy a new phone – their networks aren’t compatible with the GSM technology T-Mobile uses. If I want to keep using the same phone, my only other option is to use AT&T, but AT&T also suffers from severe suckage.