A Letter to AT&T

Dear AT&T Wireless people:

As seems to be standard practice for companies these days, you do not provide an obvious or easy method to give direct feedback on your products and services. So, after rummaging around the AT&T Wireless website for a while and finding no ways to “contact” you except when I need “support,” I decided instead to write a blog post, hoping that you, like Comcast, have minions that track these kinds of things.

I have an iPhone. That means a couple days ago I received the text message you sent to iPhone users informing us that we can now access free Wi-Fi at locations like Starbucks, where AT&T provides wireless internet access.

When I received the message, it seemed like a pretty sweet deal. But this morning, while I was at Starbucks, I tried to use your system. Here’s the short version of what I think: Your “service” sucks.

Whoever designed your “free Wi-Fi” for iPhone users clearly has no idea how iPhones are actually used. Let me explain by walking you through an example of how I tried to use your service.

While enjoying my coffee and reading a book, I turned to a footnote in my book, which cited another book that I may be interested in purchasing. So I pulled out my iPhone, opened Safari, and tapped my bookmark to Amazon.com. The usual prompt to choose a wireless network popped up and I chose the AT&T “free Wi-Fi” network. Then, instead of taking me to Amazon.com, your network hijacked my browser and required me to enter my ten-digit telephone number and tap a box to indicate that I agree with your terms of service. (By the way, do you think anybody really, honestly “agrees” with your terms of service when you make that indication mandatory to even use your service? But, you know, you’re a telecommunications company, so you get to just push us all around.)

But entering my telephone number and tapping that acceptance box did not connect me to the internet and send me on my way to Amazon.com. No, instead, you told me I would shortly receive a text message with a link to internet access. So I waited a bit, maybe ten seconds, and the text message arrived. It said:

Thank you for choosing AT&T. Click the link below to connect or reconnect to this AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot today. Free access is renewable every 24 hours.

Then there was a link. Which I tapped. AT&T interface design people: nobody “clicks” anything on an iPhone. But you are clearly not thoughtful enough to realize that.

Anyway, I tapped the link, which took me back to Safari, where another browser page popped up. That means when I tapped the icon to zoom out and scroll back and forth between the various browser pages in Safari, I now had two worthless pages open from AT&T: one telling me to wait for a text message and a second one telling me that I was now connected to the internet. Did you then automatically drop me off at my original destination, Amazon.com? No! I had to pull up my bookmarks and tap that link again. Ridiculous! Way too cumbersome.

But that’s only the first part of why your system sucks.

After looking at the listing for the book I wanted to see, I decided not to initiate a purchase just then, so I put my iPhone back in my pocket and kept reading. But a few minutes later, there was something else I wanted to look up, so I pulled out my iPhone again, thinking I was still connected to the “AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot” that your irritating text message had linked. Nope. I had to go through the whole routine again! Why? Apparently because “due to inactivity,” my session was shut down, or some such nonsense.

Listen, iPhones are not like internet terminals back in 1995. People do not sit down, log on, do a bunch of different things, log off, and walk away. With an iPhone, users connect, disconnect, reconnect, go online, go offline, and carry out small tasks here and there. This idea that “due to inactivity”—for just a few minutes!—the ability to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot should be terminated without going through your ridiculous little procedure again is preposterous from a user interface standpoint.

And if I want to use another internet-connected application on the iPhone, like the Mail application, the added steps are even more ridiculous. To check my email with a Wi-Fi connection, I have to go into Safari, then into the SMS application, then back to Safari, then to Mail. That’s just stupid.

So what did I do? I went to the Settings on my iPhone and told the phone to “forget” that network. I went back to the “Edge” data network. Even though the connection speed was not as fast as the Wi-Fi, I didn’t have to waste my time entering my number, waiting for a text message, clicking a link, closing two worthless pages, re-navigating to where I wanted to go, etc.

In other words, your “service” sucks. I put the word “service” in quotation marks because it didn’t feel like a service. It felt like a waste of my time. Your free Wi-Fi for iPhone users needs some major improvements before I’ll use it again.

Maybe you could talk to Apple and get them to add something into the firmware so that when AT&T routers detect an iPhone trying to connect, they perform some kind of “handshake” transaction with the phone to determine whether the user is an AT&T customer. Then provide seamless connectivity for people who are your customers, without making us go through all your silly procedures.

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