Tag Archives: Phone

Falling Through the Safety Net

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.

Customer Service

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.

A Breakthrough

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.

One More Straw

Starting in September, T-Mobile is introducing a new fee. If you receive a printed bill, you’ll be assessed a fee of $1.50 per month. The only way to avoid the fee is to switch to electronic payment.
They’re trying to “greenwash” the new fee by claiming that it’s supposed to benefit the environment by reducing the use of paper, fuel, etc. But the money doesn’t go to any environmental protection effort, it just goes to T-Mobile’s bottom line. Funny how that works.
Also funny is how when you have electronic payments automatically being transferred out of your account, you probably won’t notice if the amount increases again at some point down the road due to an “electronic payment fee” or an “executive compensation fee” or a “because we felt like it fee.”
As a T-Mobile customer, I already have to put up with:

  • Frequent dropped calls.
  • Lousy coverage (T-Mobile is the only provider where I’ve ever been unable to obtain a signal while on an Interstate).
  • Poor broadband coverage (They claim my house is in a “good” – as opposed to “excellent” area for 3G coverage. In reality, I almost always get a slower Edge connection.)
  • Lack of integration with emergency services (more on that in a future post).

And now I have to pay more for the lousy service?
That cracking sound you hear is the camel’s back.

More Phone Phun

As of about two weeks ago, I now have my very own Google Voice phone number. The coolest thing about this is that I can give people a single phone number and it’ll ring all my phones at once. Much easier than telling them, “well from 9 to 5 I’ll be at my work number, unless I go to lunch, in which case you can call me on my cell. But after 5 you should call this other number all together.”
As a bonus, I can also set things up so for instance if Dave calls me, the call will go straight to voice mail with a message explaining, “I can’t come to the phone right now, I have to take care of my dog.” (Select others will instead hear about the toasters.)
One other cool thing is that I can put a button on a web site and anyone in the US can call me without having to pay any sort of long distance charges. Just whatever your phone company would charge for a standard incoming call.
(Dunno how long I’ll leave this here, but for a few days anyhow so friends can play with it. If Jennifer Aniston chooses to call, that would be cool too.)
(Update: I removed it on September 5. Jen will just have to call my regular number.)
I’m a little uncertain how I feel about Google knowing my phone habits, but it’s an interesting experiment.

Android Integration

As nearly as I can tell, I’m about the only person in North America who isn’t on Facebook. (Evidently all three of my brothers have joined – though apparently none of them are fully aware of the others’ presence yet.) But I have gone and joined a different cult — I now have a Google Android-based telephone (the T-Mobile G-1).
For me, one of the most appealing parts of the Android phone is the way it integrates your phone book and calendar with Google’s contact manager (built into GMail) and calendar. That’s a fairly killer application for me in that it makes everything a whole lot more portable. The only problem is, GMail isn’t my primary means of contact. I’ve had my Dactylmanor address for more than eight years and prefer to use that one.
GMail offers a partial solution to this in that you can set it up to send messages from another address. The down side to this is that messages go out saying they’re from the GMail address on behalf of the Dactylmanor one. So when other people see it (primarily folks who are using GMail as their main address), they tend to capture the GMail address in their contact lists. If they then write to me at GMail instead of Dactylmanor, it could be a while before I see it.
Being forced to move to GMail as my primary email address would have been a deal-breaker for me. A lot of people know to contact me through Dactylmanor and I really don’t want to deal with managing two addresses. (It’s been more than four years since I got rid of my landline phone, but I still occasionally hear about people calling the old number.)
So I went looking to see if there was a way to get an Android to work with non GMail address. One of the free services Google makes available is “Google Apps for Your Domain“; essentially, they provide a version of GMail, Calendar and their online Documents and Spreadsheet tools that work with a domain name you own. (For example, dactylmanor.org!) I figured that would be my best bet.
The first stop in my investigation was a thread on the Android Community Forums where someone was asking the exact same question I was: Does Android work with Google Apps for Your Domain?
And the answer is a resounding yes. Brilliant! (Apparently Google didn’t plan to do this, but later changed their minds.)
The first thing you have to do is setup your email to go to Google’s mail server. The instructions for that show up in the administration panel when you activate the email system. It’s mildly tedious, but fairly straightforward. You do need to have the ability to set custom records in your domain’s DNS server. (Pair makes this fairly simple.)
When I’m at home, I prefer to use Mozilla Thunderbird for my email rather than Google’s web interface. Setting up a desktop email client is also fairly simple, though given the number of them in existence, it’s not possible to document the step-by-step for every system out there. Google’s instructions provide the basic information for server settings, plus a double-handful of the most common clients.
Throw in the Lightning calendar addon for Thunderbird (as well as the provider for Google calendar), and at this point you have something equivalent to Microsoft Outlook, except that along with Windows, you can also run on Mac, Linux and a few other platforms.
Bringing the Android phone into the mix requires that you dig into it’s settings a little (Home Screen | Menu | SD card & phone storage | Factory data reset) and click the button for “Factory data reset.” (Yeah, that step’s a little scary.) When the phone starts up again, when it asks for your Google account, you instead enter an email address and password for your newly Google-hosted email system.
The phone synchronizes its contact list, calendar and email with what’s on Google’s servers and voilĂ ! The Android is now ready to do your bidding.

First Impressions: Android

I’ve been a Sprint customer for the past eight years, but over the course of my most recent contract, I encountered a number of customer service issues:

  • Unable to block calls from unknown numbers.
  • Being charged for text message spam.
  • Sprint deciding to wipe out all user accounts on their web site.
  • Sprint store employees unable to sell replacement batteries.

When I wrote to the head of customer service, Sprint’s response to everything was best summed up as “We don’t do that.” (Amusingly, on one of my phone calls to customer service, the person I spoke to admitted that she doesn’t use Sprint at home.)
When my contract expired in December, Sprint offered me a $50 rebate if I’d sign on for another two years. What they didn’t offer was an apology. That’s too bad, because they certainly are sorry.
So now that I’m footloose and contract-free, I started looking around at some of my other options. I have some misgivings about T-Mobile, and a few more about Google, but the Android Operating System has all sorts of Geek appeal. (Regardless of whether you actually do it, the notion of being able to being able to program your phone is kind of cool.)
I’ve certainly heard plenty of good things about the phone. A co-worker has been raving about his since the week after they came out, and when I bumped into her at Farpoint, Katie started evangelizing about the G-1.
So, I decided to give it a try. I ended up buying the phone directly from T-Mobile and arrived home on Thursday to find a note from UPS waiting for me, saying a signature was required. I finally got the phone late Friday evening when I went to the UPS pickup location.
When you first turn the phone on, it prompts you to either login to an existing Google account, or create a new one. So I entered my information and clicked the “Sign-in” button. The login process ended with a message telling me that the phone couldn’t log in. It might be a temporary problem, or it might be that the SIM card hadn’t been set up correctly. After twelve hours later, I’ve ruled out the idea of it being a temporary glitch.
The first call to T-Mobile’s “Customer Care” number (Whatever happened to calling it “Customer Service”?) didn’t go so well. First I got a bad connection. Next, the representative kept telling me how I could find out the new phone number by entering a code (Gee, if only I could get the phone set up, I could try that!), and then I got cut off.
The second call was a bit more productive. It turns out that when I ordered the phone, the sales person forgot to sign me up with the required data plan. (Buying the G-1 phone absolutely requires you to buy a data plan, but somehow the sales person managed to skip that step.)
I’m set up with data service now, but the Customer Care rep told me it may take anywhere from a couple hours to a couple days before the service starts working. (If it ends up at the “couple days” end of the scale, I’ll be returning the phone. I’m already several days into the trial period without being able to try it.)
So my first impression of the G-1 Android phone is this: It’s a brick. I’d been hoping to write about how well it was working, maybe even post something via the phone. (Before it died, I would occasionally post via my PDA.) Instead, I’ll have to settle for letting Katie write about her phone in the comments.
Most likely the problems I’m having are because somebody turned off the satellites.

In Orbit

Given that this particular model has a reputation for draining it’s battery even faster than I can drain a can of soda, it’s good that the new new phone includes a card with “Tips to make your battery last even longer.
My favorite tip? Turn off GPS satellites when not in use.
Well OK. But won’t that be inconvenient for the rest of you?