Unintentional Roaming in New York State #ATTSucks

26 Oct

AT&T's claimed coverage map

I am a big fan of Apple’s iPhone. I’ve owned one since the original release in the summer of 2007.  Its weakest link, however, is the AT&T service that an American iPhone customer is ostensibly required to maintain.   Unlike its other phones, AT&T will not unlock the SIM to enable you to easily swap out to another carrier, like T-Mobile in the US, or Rogers in Canada.  It’s possible – but not particularly easy – to hack the phone to enable SIM card swapping.

I had an old, decommissioned iPhone 3G lying around, so I hacked it so I could use it in Canada with a prepaid Rogers SIM card.  For $2/day or $7/week, I get 3G data, as well.  It’s much cheaper than the exorbitantly unfair roaming charges that AT&T hits you with if you make the mistake of enabling data roaming through your iPhone settings.  It’s also much cheaper than the international data roaming option, which adds about $100 to a monthly bill.

Carrier setting

So, when I cross the border – something I do quite often, given that I live within 30 miles of an international crossing – I expect my phone to default to AT&T as soon as possible.  You see, as part of its SIM lock regimen, AT&T has disabled a box on in Settings that’s labeled “Carrier”.  On my hacked iPhone, that box is enabled, and I can see all available cellular networks, and have the ability to manually select any one of them.

The last two times I’ve crossed back into the US from Canada, it has taken far too long for my phone to reacquire an AT&T signal, staying on Bell Canada all the way from the Whirlpool Bridge in Niagara Falls to the 190/290 interchange in Tonawanda. That entire time – on Main Street to Pine, Pine to the I-190, crossing the North Grand Island Bridge, traversing Grand Island itself, crossing the South Grand Island Bridge, and exiting onto the I-290, I was trying to get the phone to recognize the AT&T signal by entering and exiting “Airplane Mode”.  The phone would search for what should be the strongest available signal, and hit onto Bell Canada that entire time.  (Immediately before entering the I-190 S, I had even done a complete shutdown/restart of the phone itself).

Here’s a slideshow of the screenshots of the phone I took between crossing the border at 6:26pm last Saturday, and reaching AT&T coverage in Tonawanda at 6:40pm.  Each photo was taken immediately after a hard reset, or activating Airplane mode for 10 seconds, then de-activating it.

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It’s ridiculous that it took almost 15 minutes after entering the United States, and passing by several domestic cell towers, before my phone would register on its default home carrier, opting instead to continue to roam on a weakening Canadian carrier signal.  If AT&T would simply re-enable the “Carrier” setting on iPhones sold domestically, this problem could easily be remedied.  There have been many times when I’m just close enough to the Canadian border and the phone jumps to Rogers or Bell while I’ve been in New York the entire time.

Obviously, this is a problem that doesn’t affect the vast majority of American AT&T customers, ever.  It is unique to those of us who live in a border area.  T-Mobile does not disable the carrier selection menu on its phones.  AT&T does. This needs to change so that we don’t get hit with exorbitant data or voice roaming charges while safely on home carrier soil.  It’s a matter of simplicity and fairness. It’s also time for Apple to cut the cord with the execrable AT&T, and free up the iPhone for sale with all GSM carriers, including T-Mobile.  That’s how it works in just about every other market in which Apple sells that device.  Including Canada.

9 Responses to “Unintentional Roaming in New York State #ATTSucks”

  1. BobbyCat October 26, 2010 at 11:25 am #

    I’m not a customer of AT&T and won’t be. I have heard enough horror stories from enough people to stay away from AT&T. When the subject of cell phones comes up on “Morning Joe” , everyone says that they love the Iphone but they use it as a paperweight because AT&T won’t connect. That’s enough for me.

  2. Ethan October 26, 2010 at 11:46 am #

    AT&T is precisely why I don’t have an iPhone.  I admit also liking joining the open-source bandwagon with my t-Mobile serviced HTC G1 phone… I’m not an Apple hater, but I do hate they way the use their core loyalists for beta testing ever more obvious prototype releases… anyway, I digress.  Despite that, I was stopping myself from buying an iPhone for a long while in essence because AT&T is, as you put it so precisely: execrable.

  3. Derek J. Punaro October 26, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    Have you called AT&T? I know other carriers offer those living near an international border a certain fee waiver so if their phone jumps to an international tower they’re not charged for international roaming. You might be eligible if AT&T offers something similar.

    • Alan Bedenko October 26, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

      @Derek: I didn’t incur any charges. It was simply a waiting game to see how long it would take before my phone would revert to AT&T. The fact that it took so long in both time and distance is what’s unacceptable, especially given the lack of any ability to manually override the phone’s carrier selection.

  4. Gabe October 26, 2010 at 3:17 pm #

    I lost all respect (whatever left I actually had) for Apple when they signed their remaining dignity over to AT&T.

    The iPhone is an amazing piece of technology but all the bullshit locks and limitations Apple places on the device makes it a crippled piece of nannyware for the end-user. Apple treats the device like their still own it after its sold and that their customers are merely AT&T contract serfs.

    The good news is that iPhone is as easy as shit to jailbreak/unlock for anyone who possesses a notch above rudimentary computer skills. But even after that, the crappy Apple firmware is still subject to locking up without notice. The best thing a hacker can do is just get rid of the stupid Apple OS and install the open source based Android on it–problem solved for good.

    The anti-consumer behaviors of bloated tech companies like Apple and Microsoft is reflective of a deep anxiety that their protectionist business models are being threatened with extinction by an emerging open information society. With free, open-source software like Android, Linux, OpenOffice and Firefox, it’s being proven that there is no way to compete with abundance. The proprietary (commodity) model will go the way of the horse n’ buggy. The old school companies will do everything possible to squeeze every last dollar possible out of their dying horses.

    We currently have the technological capability to put every single oversized, protectionist, parasitic (unneeded) business interest out of their miserly for good. Gotta start somewhere…keep hacking away at those iPhones!

  5. Buffalo Girl October 27, 2010 at 5:53 am #

    ummm yeah, think I’ve heard that AT&T sucks somewhere before?

  6. Jeremy October 27, 2010 at 7:55 am #

    Have not had any issues reacquiring AT&T after returning from Canada with an iPhone that was on airplane mode while in the country, which should be easy for you if you are using two (your locked phone and your unlocked Canada-ready one). I realize that it’s suboptimal, and not the point of your article, but it works as a solution of sorts to the problem.

    • Alan Bedenko October 27, 2010 at 7:57 am #

      My wife’s iPhone 4 reacquires ATT before we cross back. Mine absolutely refused.

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