Cell phone service is limited in many rural areas.  With little or no competition for their business, customers put up with a lot of yack.

[imgcontainer left] [img:alltellandVerizon530.jpg] [source]Beth Bingman[/source] Cell-phone service is limited in many rural areas.  With little or no competition for their business, customers put up with a lot of yack. [/imgcontainer]

We live in Wise, Virginia, a small town, and have a permanent home in Dungannon, a very small town, both in the southwestern tip of the state.

Last October, we and other customers of cellphone company Alltell received some glitzy mailings saying that we would need to transition from Alltell to AT&T by mid-December. We had previously read that the Alltell sale to Verizon was off in southwest Virginia because of the FCC’s concerns about monopoly – or something. So we knew we were in line to transition to AT&T and weren’t too surprised.

We were happy with Alltell and our little Alltell phones; even though we did not have service in Dungannon (Scott County), at our residence in Wise (Wise County) we had good reception. My husband and I have traveled a lot for our jobs, and Alltell service seemed at least as good as the Verizon service my sisters in Montana, Texas and Kentucky have.

But in late November or early December (I didn’t realize at that point the need to keep careful notes), we drove the mile or so to the Alltell store near where we currently live to order our new free cell phones for AT&T service. Since our daughter has an AT&T I-Phone and had good reception in Wise, we figured this was the way to go.

The Alltell store in Wise seemed to be in remodel mode and was cramped and crowded. But we were able to find phones that would work with AT&T and that were about the same size and function-set of our trusty Alltell phones. We placed an order.

We were told that the phones had to be shipped to Dungannon since that was our billing address – an inconvenience: we usually pick up our mail there on weekends, and getting a parcel post package would require a weekday visit. But whatever – we knew we had to get new phones and were glad the shift would be free: free phones and no enrollment fees.

Meanwhile, we planned a trip to Mexico. When I inquired by phone to Alltell about making calls from Mexico I was told that I just needed to switch plans to one that covered Mexico. As the price quoted (over the phone) was reasonable, I agreed, and was indeed able to easily make calls and receive text messages on my trip.

When we came home, we were surprised and felt sorry for the people in neighboring Dickenson County when we read in the paper that AT&T had realized that the towers it was acquiring from Alltell would not support the AT&T system; AT&T did not seem to think it could afford new towers any time soon. Seemed like the Alltell customers in Dickenson County were out of luck.

I wasn’t sure what that would mean in Scott County, where I hadn’t had any service from my Alltell account, nor had anyone else using other cell phone services at the Dungannon house. But I wasn’t worried because, mainly, I use the cell phone when I’m out of the Scott County house, and I’d gotten a phone message on my Dungannon land line (provided by the amazing and reliable Scott County Telephone Cooperative) that my AT&T phone had been shipped.

Then I received my December Alltel phone bill for something well over $300, not the $80-something I was used to for national coverage on my two lines. Seems that the switch for the Mexico trip did not cost exactly what I had been told. Several phone conversations straightened that out and I went ahead and paid a reduced bill.

Here the sequence gets a little fuzzy; I should have kept notes!

Sometime during the last two weeks of December I received letters from AT&T, one urging me to add Internet access to my new AT&T plan and another saying that since I did not have service (AT&T had “discovered” that the towers in Scott County wouldn’t work for them either), they were not sending the phone that they told me had already been shipped.

I then began getting increasingly frantic text messages and voice messages saying that I needed to contact AT&T immediately.  So I did.

[imgcontainer] [img:Alltelverisonopen530.jpg] [source]Beth Bingman[/source] Who’s got the tower? A customer in southwest Virginia is (then isn’t) eligible for service that can (then can’t) be provided. [/imgcontainer]

I spent several hours one evening on the phone with the cell phone industry. I began with AT&T, explaining that though my billing address was in a place that their service would not work (Scott County), it would work in most of the places I needed it, so I wanted to proceed with the switch to AT&T. They agreed to that until they decided that I did not have Alltell service – even though I was talking to them on an Alltell phone using the allegedly non-existent service. Then they told me that because I owed Alltell, they could not transfer my Alltell account to AT&T.

So I called Alltell and discovered an additional charge of something under $10 and arranged to pay it immediately by credit card. I then asked Alltell to call AT&T and let them know that I did have service that could be transferred. AT&T had assured me that Alltell would know whom to call; they didn’t.  But the Alltell guy told me that in the fullness of time, maybe a few days, maybe immediately, AT&T would be informed.  

At that point I figured: What’s one more phone call? I dialed AT&T on the off chance that they had received the notification from Alltell. The person I talked to did not try to ascertain my status. Rather, when she found where I was calling from (Wise), she told me that my Alltell status didn’t matter since AT&T didn’t have coverage in Wise. Her mind was not changed when I told her AT&T had a new store not a mile from where I was (the renovation was now complete.)  She looked at her coverage map and assured me that I could not get AT&T service, that AT&T would not let me transfer to their coverage. After a few more attempts to convince her that indeed there was AT&T service and after her advice that I keep my land line because I wasn’t going to get coverage up in the mountains, I gave up on the call — and on AT&T.

I had not noticed, but my daughter had, that Verizon had opened a temporary office at a near-by motel. Time was running out for our Alltell coverage so my husband and I took ourselves to Norton to try Verizon, to see if we could locate people who were able to tell a consistent story and make some sense.

We came in to the makeshift Verizon office, took a number and got in line behind several other people, the rest from Dickenson County. Apparently Verizon had noticed that people from Dickenson County were driving to their stores in Abingdon and Bristol – over 50 miles – to order phones. They wanted to help them (and themselves) out and opened this temporary store in Norton.

We were able to get Verizon phones with our same numbers. They weren’t free nor was the activation, but we have phone service, and phones, and they work, and the information we have received to date has matched the reality we have experienced.

Meanwhile, the new phone AT&T had said wouldn’t be shipped came in the mail. When I took it back to the now-AT&T store in Wise, I was met by a team who listened to my requests to a) turn in the phone and b) be provided with the name and address of someone in AT&T who might have the authority to affect decision-making. I was told that I could turn the phone in in 25 minutes or so – “a much shorter wait than usual” – and that they would tell their manager that I wanted to talk to him.

[imgcontainer left] [img:bethbing320.jpg] [source]Rich Kirby[/source] Beth Bingman checks to see if the AT&T office near Wise, Virginia, is open and girds up for a “shorter than usual” wait. [/imgcontainer]

When I expressed frustration at the wait and skepticism at the likelihood of the manager affecting AT&T policy, the security-guard-for-hire who had been added since the last time I had been there, walked over and hovered behind the greeting team. I assured them that I knew that the mess that AT&T was creating wasn’t their fault and took their suggestion to call for a return shipping label and left.

I made that call, requesting a mailing label and trying once more to get an actual name of someone in the AT&T decision-making hierarchy. I have received the label and returned the phone.  I could not get a name either from any of the various people on that last phone call or from the AT&T.com site where they assured me I would find the information.

With this saga, I am resorting to public media. I’ve cc’d my congressman, too, in an effort to communicate with AT&T.

Hello?  If you care about your corporation’s service and reputation, you need to make changes in employee training, commit to honesty in your corporate communication, and make an effort to meet the needs of customers who were handed to you on a platter. If you don’t care about providing competent service to people in areas like southwest Virginia, say so and move on.  I am waiting for the Scott County Co-Op to go cellular or Credo to go rural.  Meanwhile, Verizon has taken advantage of the situation and we do have functioning phones.

Beth Bingman is an educator and managing director of Appalshop, an arts, education and media center in Whitesburg, KY.

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