Monday, March 12, 2012

AT&T and Verizon Add To iPad Purchase Confusion

It wasn't easy getting to the Apple online store front after last week's announcement of the new iPad. The site was literally overrun and every step of the purchase process was slow and nerve wracking during the hours after the announcement. It took me several hours of nearly continuous effort to eventually purchase one iPad for  March 16 delivery. (Since then, all first day online inventory has been exhausted, setting to rest any early questions as to consumer perception of the new iPad's merits.)

Even as I repeatedly failed to place a successful order, I noticed something interesting. During the carrier selection process, an 8  Gigabyte/$80/month Verizon plan was actually pulled from the Apple Store site within minutes. Unfortunately, the unresponsive nature of the Apple storefront, coupled with the challenges associated with trying to complete what is normally a simple online purchase process, kept me from taking screen shots.... Perhaps more fundamentally, I didn't imagine that online carrier options could possibly change on "game day." Boy was I wrong!

My growing frustrations with AT&T led me to change carriers this purchase cycle. Despite Verizon's apparently conscious decision to be uncompetitive at the critical mid-tier, offering 2 Gigabytes of data versus AT&T's 3 Gigabytes for $30/month, AT&T's recent decisions to eliminate all "unlimited" data plans even for grandfathered customers such as myself, coupled with the obfuscation of  4G network coverage (in which Apple is at least partially complicit by incorporating the "4G" moniker as part of  last week's iOS 5.1 release), made the decision to go with Verizon seem wise on principal and probably practicality.

Since March 7, additional changes and confusion have come to light. Verizon has announced hotspot support for the new iPad at no additional charge. This feature has particular value to many Music Row Tech clients who could leverage this capability while out of  wi-fi range. AT&T is not supporting hotspot handling but has stated they are "working with Apple to incorporate this feature at some future time." Of course, AT&T hasn't commented on Verzon's decision to make this a "no charge" addition to their plan structure. Verizon's announcement will no doubt make a contingent of early adopter purchasers second guess their decision to stick with AT&T.

On the other side of the ledger, there are mixed, and confusing, comments rumbling through the blogosphere regarding AT&T's future handling of unlimited data plans on the iPad platform. I have read comments ranging from the end of all unlimited data to AT&T IS actually honoring grandfathered plans at this time. I called AT&T this morning and was told that the Unlimited Data Plan will be honored. When I asked the representative if there are plans to discontinue this plan she referred me to  Apple! When I asked if the unlimited data plan will be honored across AT&T's various 3G and 4G networks, I was again referred to 1-800-APPLE. My representative seemed to intentionally position her responses to focus the decision making on Apple, not AT&T. From a technical perspective, I  find this perplexing since the provisioning of data is purely a carrier related matter.

I assume, perhaps wrongly, that the billing plans are also carrier driven. If Apple has some level of control in these decisions, I haven't seen this disclosed anywhere. However, AT&T's relationship with Apple has become more suspect than ever given the decision to label 3G networks as "4G" as part of the newest iOS release. Perhaps there is more shared control of data handling and billing between these two companies than the public has been made aware of.....

One thing is sure, the honoring of grandfathered iPad Accounts is squarely at odds with the elimination of this same "unlimited" option on the iPhone which was announced less than two weeks ago! Further, AT&T is doing all it can to HIDE the fact that this plan is still an option for iPad users upgrading to the new iPad! It isn't in print anywhere on AT&T's official site (that I have been able to find) and there seems to be vast amounts of conflicting commentary on the subject which the company is making no effort to clarify and the available pricing plans on Apple's storefront makes no mention (even in 3 point print as a footnote) of this plan. To the extent Apple is complicit (if at all) in AT&T's overt and covert actions to "unilaterally" modify data plans, I am saddened.

I did contact Apple regarding the possibility of changing carriers based on new information. My order is already on a loading dock so this opportunity has past. However, I  was told that Apple will honor an exchange within the first fourteen days if you are in any way unhappy with your carrier decision. Given that I am among a dwindling herd of  AT&T iPad users still eligible for Unlimited Data, I may well have to revise my decision to move to Verizon. Assuming AT&T doesn't change its mind in the next week, I will try Verizon for a week, contact Apple, and make a final decision then. I believe that the wireless carriers' failure to commit and communicate is going to make for something of a logistical nightmare for Apple early in the new iPad's purchase cycle. 

If nothing else is clear from these events, the in play and jockeying for customers between Verizon and AT&T is intense and fluid. Consumers lose when there aren't well defined plans outlined at the time of purchase. Apple's best response would have been to make a "universal iPad" capable of running on either carrier's network. I am guessing the wireless carriers aren't rooting for this opportunity for choice on a month to month basis. While both companies offer "no contract, thirty day programs" for iPads, they know having to click on a carrier at the time of purchase effectively makes you a locked in customer for at least a year. This is a shame. Consumers lose again and since Sprint, T-Mobile, and others are effectively locked out of the discussion entirely, you have to pick which of these two behemoths are the lesser evil for your use and geography. I don't envy you the decision. If you want my thoughts on the full iPad selection process, please click here.

Do any of these recent announcements change your opinion, or decision, as to your data provider? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Companies:   Apple, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile Verizon

I have a long position in $AAPL

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