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Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

July 30, 2007

Last week's column had my lament and discourse about the New AT&T cell phone service. It generated a lot of mail. It also generated a telephone call (to my New AT&T cell phone) from the Office of the President of AT&T. I'll tell that story in the column. Meanwhile, here's sample of what many of you had to say about cell phone service in general, and the New AT&T in particular. I found all of these quite interesting; but do understand that I haven't thought about cell phone service for years, and have always just accepted whatever came with the phone, year after year. That was a mistake, as you will see.


If falls under the devil you know.

I recently shopped for a new cell phone provider to move away from AT&T/Cingular. What I found was that they still have the best "plans."

My suggestion would be a family plan with nationwide coverage, no roaming. They will charge a certain amount for the primary phone on the account and then an additional charge for each subsequent phone on the account.

All phones will share the minutes (my wife Bambi & my mother-in-law are tied in this way). My guess is you would need the base plan. You should be able to get them to waive the activation fee with a bit of discussion.

[Link to a specific ATT plan's details]

Rate Plan Details

Monthly Cost for first two lines $59.99 Additional lines $9.99/per line Anytime Minutes 550 Night & Weekend minutes Unlimited Mobile to Mobile minutes Unlimited Long Distance $0.00 Roaming Charges $0.00 Additional minutes $.45/minute One-time activation fee $36.00 Additional lines (2-3) activation fee $26.00 Contract length 2 years

Hope this helps.


Something very like this is what was offered to me by the Office of the President; again, see the column.

There were many more comments, most not favorable to the New AT&T, and I have selected those I thought informative.

Dr. P:

I have had similar experiences with Sprint as you did with AT&T, excepting that my grief came when Sprint combined with Nextel and became a company that was poorer than either were by themselves.

I resolved the problem by switching to Verizon. They have better service where I go, and most importantly they have a local store where most of the issues I've had have been resolved.

The annoyances (this doesn't just apply to Verizon, BTW) do exist.

1. You can't get a nice, small phone without a camera. Or any phone without a Camera.

2. Their website isn't very good, and their people are not all that well trained. But the supervisors in the stores know their stuff.

3. They (like most) are a CDMA system. So, no SIM cards and you're locked to their service. If, after your 2 years of commitment, you want to leave, you need a new phone for your new company.

The good things:

1. Service is good, and everywhere I've travelled in the USA.

2. Calls to other Verizon phones are free. Incoming calls from other Verizon phones are free.

3. They have a cheap "America's choice" plan for $40+fees/taxes/etc., that gives you 450 minutes of business hours calling to people who are not Verizon customers, and unlimited nights and weekends.

4. You can turn off the ability to get text messages on your phone and avoid that annoyance. Otherwise you'll get random text messages from clumsy strangers, and they'll want you to pay for them.

5. Roaming isn't too bad. I'm in Canada right now - I switched to the plan that adds Canada for a month and pay no roaming charges while I'm here.

6. All the phones let you set them to "home network only' so when in the USA you will never roam without changing the phone settings. If you are about to get/place a call when you are roaming, you are warned that it'll cost you before you can proceed.

Good luck. Picking a new cellphone provider seems to be a painful experience for everyone who has ever done it..

:) Rob

Thanks for laying out the advantages and disadvantages so clearly. As you say, the experience is interesting, as in living in interesting times.

Subject: The New AT&T

Last June 29th my oldest son spent a day in line at a mall to buy an iPhone for himself and me. The employees at the Apple store treated the customers like rock stars, and in spite of huge crowds, had him in and out with his purchase in 15 minutes. He came out feeling really good about spending $1,200 on two phones. An hour later, AT&T managed to kill all the good feelings and add two more people to the legions who carry a hatred for them hotter than the fires in the deepest part of Hell.

He was able to activate his phone after about 7 hours of frustration, but mine was stalled due to a fraud alert placed on our credit files after my wife's purse was stolen a few years ago. I was told to go to an AT&T store to get a credit approval number. I did that the next morning, and after giving up my information to a young lady I was told to "Go home. Call me and I'll call the authorization center.

They will call you at home to verify your identity." Yes, even though I was physically standing right in front of her, with various documents confirming who I was, I had to run through this gauntlet.

Fortunately my office was only a block away, so I went online, forwarded my Vonage phone at home to my mobile, and returned to the store. The same young lady called the mother ship, and after 20 minutes told me that my home phone number didn't work, and they couldn't help me.

Fortunately, even though my credit score is just a few points short of the maximum possible, I was able to use the "bad credit" option to activate my phone on a prepaid plan. This will actually work out to be cheaper, due to my very light use of the phone feature, and it leaves me without a contract. Just as soon as an alternative becomes available, I'll be leaving AT&T.

All this was icing on the cake, since immediately prior to this incident mistakes by AT&T caused me to lose my primary business phone number that I've had for 10 years. The bad experiences I've had with both AT&T and Verizon have caused enough stress to take a decade off my life. It's only a matter of time until, like the Terminator, they come back together to once again become THE PHONE COMPANY who doesn't care.

Jim Stutsman

The Office of the President of AT&T wants to assure you that they do Care. I'll be sure they get a copy of your letter. And thanks.

One does wonder whether Apple will have any clout here? If many iPhone buyers have similar experiences - and there's evidence that they did - it cannot make Apple happy.

Hi Jerry,

I am sure you have plenty of feedback for this already, but I wanted to share what I think I know about cellphones and AT&T. Your old phone must have a local plan only and either be analog or very old digital and that's why you get roaming charges even at home. You do need to upgrade and get a nationwide plan. My wife had to give up an old AT&T Wireless phone she loved because when Cingular acquired AT&T Wireless they de-emphasized the old digital network in favor of GSM and she was getting no signal at home after a great signal for years. We all have good reason to hate AT&T perhaps, but they are the best game in town.

AT&T (perhaps unfortunately) does happen to have the best Pocket Computer and phone that you allude to and I don't mean the iPhone. The AT&T or Cingular 8525 is a Windows Mobile 5 Pocket PC and telephone. It is capable of the 3g high speed connection both for its own internet and email use and for tethering a laptop to the phone for connection when wifi is not available or too expensive. It has push email if you have MS Exchange mobile server; my company does and it is nice to get my email, calendar and reminders pushed to me, in effect wirelessly syncing my laptop Outlook. It will also sync via usb or Bluetooth or IR if you don't have Mobile Server. It supports on demand pop email as well and also has wifi capability. Best of all, you can get this device free (or could last month, anyway) if you sign up for a $40 voiceplan and a data plan and 2 years. Check it out.


Steve Hughes

I find this interesting, and I should look into " The AT&T or Cingular 8525 is a Windows Mobile 5 Pocket PC and telephone." I rather like my ancient Nokia phone, which doesn't to anything except be a cell phone (although I recently discovered that it can receive text messages).

Peter Glaskowsky (http://www.speedsnfeeds.com) notes:

I have a Cingular 8525. It's a smaller cousin of that iMate Jasjar we got at the Microsoft Professional Developer's Conference a couple of years ago.

I got the 8525 last November when I bought the MacBook Pro as a way to get that machine on the 3G wireless network (because the MBP has an ExpressCard slot that can't accept my older Sierra Wireless Aircard 860), and secondarily in the hope that the 8525 could replace my Treo, which is old and sometimes flaky.

The 8525 does work as a 3G wireless modem over Bluetooth, but not very reliably, and it burns so much power while connected to the 3G network that if my connection is going to last more than about 15 minutes I need to hook up a USB cable just to provide power to the phone.

The reliability problem is multifaceted. Sometimes the Bluetooth won't connect. Sometimes the 3G service won't connect. The Bluetooth frequently disconnects in the middle of a connection, and the 3G occasionally does too. I haven't been able to figure out how to get the 3G connection to work over the USB cable, which would at least eliminate the Bluetooth problems.

The 8525 is okay as a phone. It's small, light, and has a good sensitive radio. Basic phone operation is simple enough, but like most Windows Mobile phones, anything beyond the basic features tends to get complicated. The Treo is more like a Mac-- everything is either easy or impossible.

I suppose I ought to write all this up on my CNET blog. Maybe I'll get a call from the Office of the President of AT&T too. :-)

. png

The stuff I carry in my breast pocket
The stuff I carry in my breast pocket

I suppose anything that uses a radio will have power problems. I see that iPhone power boosters seem to be having a good sale. Perhaps that will bring about the fashion revolution...

At right you can see the stuff I carry in my breast pocket: Sony camera, Olympus voice recorder, and Nokia phone. It would be nice to consolidate all this.

Hi Jerry,

I read about your trials with your Cingular mobile phone, and I'm not sure that this is a case of AT&T rising from the dead. I just read Cay Horstmann's travails trying to get a cell phone set up for his daughter with Verizon and his experiences reminded me a lot of yours:


It seems almost like we have a "race to the bottom" when it comes to both goods and services. I first noticed this when it became almost impossible to get an even half-way decent keyboard, even as an add-on, at Frys. My three-year-old HP consumer-level PC has had almost every single part fail. Just like "bad money drives out good" it seems like "cheap junk" drives out well-made equipment.

The same thing seems to be happening in customer service. When I first got DSL from Pac Bell, (back in 1998), they sent a pair of technicians out who tested my line and who installed my modem. When my DSL line failed in June, I spent the predictable day off work standing in the automated phone-queue. When I purchased a Dell computer for my son, I specifically ordered "On-site, next day service", (so I wouldn't have to spend my weekends fixing my kid's computer), only to find out that "on-site" actually meant unlimited telephone support.

I don't know how good a solution this is, but I've been moving my family, starting with my wife, over to the Mac, not because I think that they have better machines (although that does seem to be true), but simply because there are two Apple stores (at South Coast Plaza and at Fashion Island) within 5 miles, where the employees really seem willing to help if something goes wrong. My wife actually likes to go there, so you know that they're doing something right.

-- Steve

Race to the bottom does seem to be the norm, in Airline "services", telephones, grocery stores, clothing stores, and nearly everywhere else. There are a very few companies that continue to compete on service to the customer, but of course they have to charge more to do that, and the Big Box stores with perfunctory "have a nice day" cashiers and no sales people to speak of are gnawing away at them. I suppose that with Global Free Trade this race will continue, and it's hard to see where it will end. Probably with two kinds of stores, Needless Markup and Big Box. I know I now prefer to buy less and pay more to places that have polite clerks. One reason we like Gelsons grocery chain is that the clerks don't seem actively to hate both their jobs and their customers. I can't say that of many other grocery stores.

Perhaps when we reach bottom there will be some effort to provide real service. In particular, perhaps they could make automated telephone trees endurable, and companies will give you a choice of silence, classical music, opera, or hard rock while you wait; I wouldn't think that too expensive.

Regarding keyboards, see this column segment; I find the Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboards, both wired and wireless, quite good enough, and nearly all my work is done on one of them now.

Subject: I'm so tired of roamin' I'm about to lose my mind

(with apologies to Hank Williams)

Dr. P-

Most cellular phones have a setting, somewhere, to turn roaming off. In the case of your aging Nokia, it would most likely be found under:


The default is AUTO, which means the phone continuously chooses "the best signal" and trust me, money is no object. If you tell it to only use your home network, there will be no more surprise charges on your bill. You probably will not even notice any difference in service.

Hope this helps,


That seemed a splendid idea, but alas, my ancient telephone doesn't seem to have TOOLS, and looking at all reasonable synonyms hasn't found any such setting. I suppose at some point I will replace my ancient phone, but I like it: it fits nicely into a breast pocket.

On the subject of funky phones, Bob Thompson (http://www.ttgnet.com/thisweek.html) says:

We were having dinner with some friends a while back, when I pulled out my cell phone. They all had a great time laughing at my cell phone, ridiculing its "gigantic" size. Granted, it's twice the size of the largest one they had among them, and three times the size of the smallest. But it's as small as I'd want to have. The buttons are actually large enough and far enough apart for me to use easily.

It's so big because it's several years old. It has no functions other than placing and receiving calls, for which it works fine. It's a prepaid model. It costs me about $9/month total, including taxes and other fees. I pay $0.35/minute daytime and $0.10/minute nights and weekends. Every 90 days, I add $25 to the account to keep it active and roll over unused time. My current balance is something over $300. I could pay $100 once a year, but AT&T bought the previous phone company, who bought the previous phone company, who bought the previous phone company, and I'm not sure how much longer I'll remain with AT&T. If I change, it'll be to another prepaid cellular plan.

It sounds to me as though you're a pretty light user. If so, you should check into pre-paid. There are a lot of different options available.

- RBT -

Which is certainly one option.

I have received no end of useful information as a result of last week's column. Here's some more:

Without knowing your rate plan, I cannot really offer any specific advice with regard to an alternate plan. However, I suggest that anyone getting a cell phone or a new plan visit www.phonedog.com or letstalk.com. Both of these sites allow you to compare plans offered by the different carriers. There are several plans that have national coverage, that do not charge extra fees for out-of-network calls, which have 450 minutes of free usage per month, and which are under $50.00 (typically $39.95).

Cell phone plans typically have a contract length. I strongly recommend that when your contract expires, DO NOT SIMPLY RENEW THE CONTRACT. The cell phone industry is highly competitive and highly volatile. New services are added on a regular basis and prices regularly come down. Simply put, by the time your contract expires, you can typically get the same services for much less money. Accordingly, whenever your contract expires, look for the best deal currently available. It sounds like you have been using the same plan for an extended period of time -- you are likely grossly overpaying for the services you are using (probably around $150-200 per year). Not only will you likely get more services for less money by comparing plans when your contract ends, you typically can get a new phone for free (if you remember to send in your rebate). Some people want a phone that only makes calls (actually hard to find). Others will want a phone that can text, browse the web, play music, organize your calendar, take photos, etc. The free cell phones offered with new plans can pretty much do all of the above (except maybe play music).

Some people frequently run up very large bills by exceeding the included free minutes. You can download applications that will text your cell phone when you have nearly exhausted the free cell phone minutes. http://watchmycell.com/ The application reputedly runs off of your own computer, which eliminates the need to share private information with another party. Full disclosure: I have never used this application and do not know if it is malware. My google research seems to indicate that it is legit. Do your own due diligence.

Verizon has for the past several years had the highest customer rating of any of the major carriers.

Hope this helps,

Rene Daley

Thank you for the pointers to those useful places.

And I heartily agree: DO NOT simply renew the cell phone contract (in my case simply by default: I never knew when there was a contract, I simply did nothing, and that was a serious error.)

Subject: Regarding Telephones and VOIP

I use Sprint and I do like the service. They don't cripple the phones like Verizon does and I like their internet browsing.

As to going strictly VOIP. I have to say that I would find that scary at home. I live in South Florida. The year we got hit with two hurricanes three weeks a part my Cable was technicaly down for well over two months. The wire got ripped out of the wall so after two weeks I just crimped a new end on it and fixed it myself just in time for the next hurricane.

My Phone worked just fine for two days after the storm until they ran out of power but it came back up as soon as we got power back. The next year when we got hit again the cable went down, the power was down for THREE WEEKS! but the phones kept working. It seems the Bell South did go the extra mile after the first two storms and fixed beefed up the infrastructure.

Oh my Cell and just about everybody else's went down for all the storms. I am about as big of a techie as there is but I like the safety of a real land line phone.


I heartily agree. The OLD AT&T worked miracles in assuring dial tone in the midst of disasters. I recall the horrible ice storm in Memphis in April of 1948 or 1949 when electric and telephone wires broke under the weight of the ice, which got so thick on the streets that for three days I was able to ice skate down Central Avenue to school at the old Christian Brothers. The Phone Company had everyone who could climb a pole, from linemen to supervisors and one vice president, out stringing lines, and we had phone service almost continually after the initial storm.

I don't know if the New AT&T is quite so determined, but at least they have that tradition. I've had power out in Los Angeles, once for three days after the Big Earthquake, but I have never been more than an hour without (landline) telephone service.

Mac Enthusiast Tim Loeb writes:

Dear Jerry:

You wrote:

The first step toward that is the iPhone but that's very much just the beginning. In the not very distant future, our pocket computers will be cell phones; cameras, both still and motion; GPS location unit; Internet browser; Calendar, phone book, task manager, and general Personal Data Assistant; Blackberry; primary means of dealing with email; blogging tool; and the instrument on which you do all the reading of mass market paperback books, and over time, more and more of the reading that you now do from hardbound books.

I point out that the iPhone is ALL of those things, minus the GPS and motion picture camera, today, this minute, right now. That you can't read a bunch of books on it is not a limitation of the device but due to the fact that they are not yet available; this will change.

Some bright bulb will figure out a portable keyboard that works with the iPhone for serious writing and blogging (which I believe, contrary to what appeared in the column earlier, is simply a contraction of "Web log" = blog). GPS will be built in to the second iteration.

That said, my experience with AT&T over the past decade mirrors yours precisely: the one thing they care about delivering is the bill, and that is IT. Quality signal? Service? Support? Even basic courtesy? You'd best look elsewhere. Which is why I do not have an iPhone, nor any plans to buy one.

For cell service I have Verizon and have been more than happy with them for a number of years. Their signal quality and service area improves noticeably year over year. Their customer support has been excellent, the billing etc. hassle free.

I have a nationwide plan that costs $79 a month for 900 regular minutes and unlimited night & weekend minutes. Here's how it works:

Anywhere I get a Verizon signal I am on the plan, ANYWHERE in the US. People calling in, me calling out, no difference: if the phone is on their network, even in analog, there is NO long distance, NO roaming. If I'm NOT on their network the phone tells me so; a large "R" flashes on the screen. The phone can be set so that you have to input a special keystroke sequence to be able to use roaming - so "surprise" roaming charges have absolutely positively never happened. Never.

I can also use the minutes for data via Bluetooth on my Macs; the speed is about twice that of dialup (114-118kbps usually). It's brainless to set up & use, but Verizon won't tell you how; they want to sell you a data plan. There are many Web sites however that have the right code info for a variety of Verizon phones.

Anyway the plan is called America's Choice 2 and you can save $$ by buying less minutes. The only downside that I have found is that Verizon offers NO rollover minutes: use 'em or lose 'em.

Hope this helps...


Of course the iPhone only comes with AT&T just now. It's a very good start to what I hope will be a major trend that ends with the Pocket Computer as we described in THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE back in 1972...

Changing the subject at last:


Regarding your experience with spontaneous rebooting you wrote "Since in fact I had not seen a blue screen of death - the system had simply rebooted itself - this wasn't a lot of help".

In fact you could have seen a blue screen, but recovery option in My Computer-> Properties-> Advanced-> Startup and Recovery probably was set to "Automatically reboot on System failure" (it is set so by default). Just uncheck it if you want to see a BSOD in similar cases.

Best regards,
Alexander Krol
Senior Software Engineer/ Algorithm Designer.
R&D (Screening Technologies group) -
Output Devices Kodak IL Ltd

Thanks. I suppose I knew that, and forgot it. This seems to happen to me often lately.


Back in the 1990s (in the beginning, I think) I read the Byte magazine and got fond of your columns. Although you use far more complicated systems, than, for instance, I do, it was fun reading straightforward opinions and humorous attempts to tame new software/hardware.

When I got Internet, I read your columns in BYTE online, too. To my disappointment, BYTE changed to a have-to-pay-in-order-to-read online magazine.

Now I saw that you are continuing your columns on this webpage. That's really nice. I'll be your faithful reader again after... I don't know how many years.


Juergen Roemer

P.S. Some Linux articles would be nice. I switched to Ubuntu, and I like it a lot.

Thanks! We are slowly picking up BYTE refugees. Tell your friends, and of course you can always subscribe...