Given when I first traveled to the United States in November 2006 I came home to a $998 Optus bill, I’ve been really, really shy on subsequent trips about using my mobile for anything. The roaming charges on Optus are insanely expensive, some calls are $2.50 a minute, and for memory it’s $1.30 to receive calls or similar.
Given I’m State side for 2 weeks this trip (I’ve been here a week as I write this) I ventured down the pre-paid local sim card route. T-Mobile offered the best deal…but has no coverage at TC central in Atherton, which left me with AT&T only (of the 4 major telcos in the US, 2 offer GSM, 2 offer CDMA, the iPhone is GSM).
First the travelers tip. I needed a way to divert my phone to a US number without the massive expense of Optus international. So this is what I did.
1. Buy a Skype-in number for Australia. In my case it was an 03 Melbourne number as the wife is already there and I’ll be based there soon (we’re half the way through moving to Melbourne).
2. Divert Optus mobile number to the 03 number. I think it was something like 25c/ min or less.
3. Divert the Skype-in number to the AT&T sim. Skype charges about 3c a minute for the diverted call.
Now the AT&T pre-paid card charges 25c USD a minute to receive calls, expensive, but it works out at about 50-60c a minute to take a call made to my original number, as opposed to $1.25 / minute or more if I just used the Optus sim on global roaming. Most importantly, the diverted call counts again my plan, where as internation roaming would be extra, so that 60c might be less that 35c/ minute in actual costs to me.
Now back to AT&T. I’d been in one of their stores previously with Marty Wells of Tangler, so I knew it was going to be bad. It still was. Whereas a Telstra shop is always busy (at least the one in Bunbury is) and you often have to wait, but you queue for that, AT&T works on a door greater/ take your name basis. So you enter the store and the store greater puts your name on a list and you wait to be called. My trip this time took 20 minutes to be called despite the store not being that busy, it’s that slow. Buying the SIM card wasn’t that hard when I was eventually called, and I had a number.
Nearly a week later and the pre-paid SIM has run out. I only bought $25 worth of credit and you pay 25c/ min for incoming and outgoing calls, that and data at 1c a kb…and of course with an iPhone it’s hard to avoid data.
So I went to the AT&T Palo Alto store today. There’s a machine that looks like an ATM that allows you to top up your credit. I swipe my Australian Visa (debit) and nothing, wont work. Try again, nothing. I’ve just got enough for the min $15 USD top up so I feed the money into the machine, then wait…and wait…and wait. “Communications error” and a printed receipt saying I should dial through the number on the receipt for a credit. I didn’t want to wait 30 minutes to talk to someone directly?Ç¬† (this time it was really busy) so I left. Got back, dialed the number, entered the number on the receipt. “This is an invalid number”. Try two more times, same response.
So I call AT&T customer service. I can’t emphasise enough how much further call centre “voice recognition” has advanced in the US as compared to Australia. 5 minutes of telling the machine what I wanted. Told the wait is 60 seconds, then 10 minutes later I speak to someone. After repeating myself 5 times (apparently my Australian accent is difficult to understand) I’m told that I’ve got the wrong department, and I’d be transfered. Get transfered to a message that says you’ve called out of hours, please call a special after hours number if you still need help. Called that number…it wasn’t AT&T’s number, unless I wrote it down wrong.
So despite already having a credit I decide to try the website because I want a working mobile. Type my details into the website, they want the billing address for the Visa, I put it in and get an error message telling me I have to select a state, despite the drop down only offering “Australia -other” and trying to select it over and over and over again.
End of the day I’ve got a useless phone until I call AT&T in the morning, so don’t try and ring me. I’ll also promise to never criticize Telstra customer service again. Despite there many failings, I’ve always been able to speak to a real person who could help me when I’ve needed it with Telstra (our home landline is with Telstra), AT&T on the other hand makes them look brilliant. I guess anything like this should always be in context, and now I’ve seen the worst.