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Digital Disconnect

July 18, 2005

Cell phones are intrusive, not because they sound off during lectures, faculty meetings and commencement -- not even because they blur the line between home and work, with calls chiming at all hours -- but because university policy just about requires them.

I direct the journalism school at Iowa State University and am author of a technology book documenting the interpersonal divide caused by digital gadgetry. So I should have known better when my institution recommended cell phones as an option in a new policy prohibiting in-office personal long distance calls, which used to be allowed, as long as employees reimbursed the university -- a practice dubbed labor
intensive and unproductive.
 
Of course I know why the new policy was instituted: The old reimbursement system made secretaries monthly bill collectors put in the position of challenging the occasional employee making dozens of work-related calls to cities where families and partners just happened to reside. Cell phones cause other personnel problems. Because employees foot the bill, many feel they can use the mobile gadget on university time in off-limits settings like restrooms.

We won’t go there. 

We live in a brave new digital world where ivory towers have been replaced with cellular ones. Each new high-tech gadget paid for by employees resolves one ethical issue and creates a dozen more hitherto unanticipated conundrums. Some days it seems anything requiring human trust and interpersonal communication can be declared labor intensive and unproductive, what, with e-mail, computer networks, teleconferencing, digital television, pocket cameras and wireless Internet at our fingertips, all of which, incidentally, assimilated of late by the cell phone.

Administrators want to be good institutional citizens. So I gave each professor and staff member a copy of the new long-distance policy. Because I had recommended cell phones, I felt obliged to upgrade mine and along with that of my spouse. Diane, a journalism lecturer, heeding offers by Cingular, which had recently absorbed our carrier AT&T Wireless.
 
After last year’s $41 billion merger, Cingular informed us about its calling plans and focus on customer service and technical support -- both of which seemed like AT&T Wireless oxymorons. Reminders about the merger came with bills and bulk mail touting rollover minutes. A skeptical consumer, I had researched the allusion of individuality reflected in the Cingular brand, as if it cared about each single 46 million customers.

Like many of those customers, I could have ordered new phones and plans online and tried to migrate -- a curious word, as if consumers  flock like ducks in cyberspace -- from AT&T to Cingular. Instead we visited our local Cingular Wireless vendor in Ames, Iowa, and bought two phones with rebate savings (another oxymoron) and a $59.99 calling plan with $9.99 additional line. This was cheaper than my $69.99 AT&T Wireless plan with a $39.99 line for my spouse.
 
The salesperson, Kevin, switched our phones, charged the appropriate fees, wrote up bills and outlined plans meticulously. What follows is a narrative of what happened after Diane and I left the sales office. True, our story may simply be an anomaly, a bit of lousy cellular luck. So I’ll be reading the posted comments to see if mine is a Cingular experience.

Two weeks after placing our order I received my official welcome from Cingular Wireless -- my final AT&T bill with a $175 early cancellation fee for switching carriers. I called “customer care.” On its Web site, Cingular Wireless aspires to provide best-in-class sales and service.

Keeping with that shared vision, an AT&T Wireless representative told me that I would have to pay the cancellation fee. This was company policy. I asked for his supervisor. On hold, I listened to a female voice
sing the many virtues of the recent merger offering rollover minutes and more. Her silken voice was interrupted by the supervisor’s. Like Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, she was adamantine. “When you break a contract, sir, you are obligated.”

This was a teachable moment. “That would be true,” I remember replying, if I had left AT&T for Sprint. But I left it for Cingular, “which owns you now.” I paused. I had meant that in a good way.I would have to pay, she said.

I called back later and spoke to a more helpful supervisor. She contacted the Ames wireless store and learned that a glitch occurred because my old cell phone had an Ohio area code. (Yes, I kept my old number, even though Diane and I had migrated to Iowa.) It took six weeks to fix that bill, about the time for rebate offers to be honored.

Remember those rebates? To get them, consumers fill out a form, copy serial numbers, enclose copies of receipts and cut barcodes from boxes. I did those chores on the day I purchased the cell phones with the kind of concentration I usually reserve for income tax itemization. I received two copies of a form letter from the rebate center in Young America, Minn. “We regret that we are unable to process your request as received. The cash register receipt enclosed was either not dated or not dated within the time period designated for this offer.”

I made several calls to rebate center representatives who gave conflicting instructions. At last I learned that in addition to getting a dated receipt from the local wireless story, I would have to return original barcodes cut from the box.

Did I mention that the customer care department did not send them back?

A snippy rebate representative told me to dismantle the cell phones and locate the serial numbers behind the batteries. Then I was to photocopy the cell phones so that the numbers were legible. I opened the cell phones and photocopied the serial numbers in the main office of the journalism building, telling the secretary that these were personal copies. There’s a policy on that, too. Then I mailed new rebate materials during the lunch hour and placed my personal cell phone next to my office phone in case I needed to make an emergency long-distance call.

My first emergency call was to Cingular Wireless when my new bill arrived showing two separate calling plans -- a $59.99 one for me and another $59.99 for my spouse (rather than the $9.99 additional line that
I was promised). With fees, the bill was $138.85 I had kept the original documentation of our calling plan -- as precious as copies of IRS 1040 forms in an audit.
 
“We apologize for the billing mistake,” the Cingular Wireless operator said.
 
“Please send me a new bill then.”

“That would cost an additional $5.”

I asked why I had to pay for Cingular’s mistake.

“Because that is our policy,” he replied, perhaps without sensing the double meaning.

I asked for his supervisor, Stephen, who also apologized for the mistake and told me to forget a new bill. “Just pay online with a credit card.”

But I wanted documentation.

He said that the company was not equipped to provide that.

At that moment I beheld a core truth about the state of customer service in today’s high-tech global media environment. The world’s largest digital calling company lacks a function to send, e-mail or fax a new bill
without a fee.

By now I was whimsical.  “Do you have a minute?” I asked, realizing that he had plenty of minutes, sold by the plan. I shared with him my cell phone saga that began with a university policy, continued with early termination fees, included denied rebate offers and now was approaching denouement. “When will this end?” I asked.

“Just cross out the $138.85 on the Cingular bill and send the correct amount,” he suggested.
 
By now I was anticipating the next glitch, an outsourced bill processor in Carol Stream, Ill., confronted with the conundrum of a $138.85 bill with an $82.17 payment.
 
“It’ll be fine,” the supervisor said. He didn’t say “trust me,” but I intuited that in his tone.
 
“Let’s make a bet,” I replied, predicting I would get another $138.85 charge.
 
“No, you won’t,” Stephen said. He gave me his full name and offered additional rollover minutes if the bill wasn’t corrected in the next cycle.

My next bill arrived stating that I still had two $59.99 plans and charging me another $138.85. I put in three calls to Stephen and left messages that he must make good on his bet. But he did not return messages even though he has my e-mail, cell phone, home phone, work phone, text messaging, fax and other digital means of access.

During my last call to Cingular, an operator apologized for the latest bill, telling me to cross out the $138.85 and just pay the $82.17. That is the same bad advice that the elusive Stephen gave, I explained. 
 
“I know what I am doing, and I’ll fix this for you,” she said.

The next week I received my rebate checks. Cingular eventually sent me a corrected statement. I remember opening the envelope and feeling a rush of relief, a curious emotional response that occurs when justice is served, along with the consumer.

That evening in my home office my Eudora pinged with a message from Sprint that somehow had circumvented the university’s spam filter: “Great news! Due to the affiliation with the State of Iowa, All University Faculty and Staff are now eligible for huge discounts with Sprint PCS. You now receive a 15% monthly discount on all rate plans, and a free phone with new activation. You are also now able to take your phone number from another carrier to Sprint PCS at no charge. For details on phones and rate plans please call Customer Solutions @ 877-777-4680 or 888-727-2003.”

Was this truly great news, this corporate affiliation with the state? Would I enjoy huge discounts and a free phone with new activation? Could I really take my Cingular Wireless number to Sprint at no charge?

I remain skeptical. But I no longer make personal calls on my university phone, although I still feel that I make monthly restitution.
 

Bio

Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford, 2005). He writes a monthly technology column for Inside Higher Ed.

 

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