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From the Editor's Desk: Carriers are not your friends

AT&T
AT&T (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

For many years, before I joined Mobile Nations and started working at Android Central, I reported on the Canadian wireless industry for MobileSyrup. I was there during the transition from 3G to 4G throughout 2011 and 2012; a year later, I saw the ratification of the so-called Wireless Code of Conduct that essentially banned three-year contracts and made it more difficult for carriers to unilaterally change your phone plan or charge you onerous cancellation fees.

Much of the Wireless Code of Conduct, which you can read in full in its only-slightly-improved state in 2020, was based around the idea that things were better in the U.S., and that Canada should try its best to emulate what was happening in the much more dynamic and competitive market down south. It was premised on the idea that while a free and open market is ideal, the carriers should be at least moderately prevented from their own worst tendencies and that, if given the opportunity, they would preference their stockholders and their share price, over their customers.

Now this neither a new nor novel premise, especially in 2020 after the further consolidation of the U.S. carrier market from four big players to three, but the idea crossed my mind again this week after both AT&T and T-Mobile lurched into the next stage of the long and arduous process of shutting down their respective 3G networks so they can repurpose those airwaves for more modern and efficient 5G standards.

The move to shut down 3G networks has been a long time coming, and to anyone following the industry even remotely it shouldn't come as a shock that some 17 years after its introduction, and 12 years after its mainstreaming with the iPhone 3G, carriers would like to bring its storied legacy to a close. 3G made possible many of the smartphone features we take for granted today — streaming audio, photo sharing, dynamic and rich mobile websites, and the earliest of choppy video streaming — that LTE would later cement as quotidian parts of our daily lives. 3G also digitized voice calls, and in some parts of the U.S. and the world, thanks to its robustness, is still the only way to get online.

AT&T could technically allow compatible phones to work with its VoLTE service, but it's choosing not to.

This week, Android Police got wind that AT&T has been sending email to customers whose phones are either incompatible with, or have not been whitelisted for, the carrier's VoLTE service, also known as Voice Over LTE, reminding them that they will need to upgrade their phones to continue making phone calls. What the email didn't specify was why it was happening — and there are a hosts of potential reasons — nor the timeline for this eventuality. The reality is much more nuanced: users have until early 2022 to upgrade, and many of the phones deemed incompatible with AT&T's VoLTE service are merely not whitelisted. In other words, AT&T could do the right thing and make those phones work past 2022, but it's choosing not to.

Carriers often remark that the decisions they make around enabling features on phones, such as whitelisting devices for VoLTE or Wi-Fi Calling or Visual Voicemail or any number of minor enhancements, are done in the best interests of their customers. If I go to Amazon and buy a random unlocked phone that the seller deems compatible with AT&T's network, the carrier can't guarantee proper functionality because that particular model didn't go through the same rigorous network and software testing as a device it sells. And that's a fair point — not everyone is a techy who understands how particular features work, but many are bargain hunters who want to save a bit of money on their next phone, or don't want to be forced to upgrade their legacy plans by purchasing a device through official channels.

People buy unlocked phones for a variety of reasons, and avoiding carrier bloatware is one of them.

But if you've ever purchased an Android phone from AT&T or any other major U.S. carrier you know the other side of the story: that the carrier asserts a lot of influence over your experience through the software it preloads. When my colleague Andrew Martonik reviewed the AT&T variant of the LG V60, he remarked at the absurd amount of bloatware that comes pre-installed:

And I have to mention what AT&T has done to this phone's software, because LG isn't selling the phone unlocked here in the U.S. — only through Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. AT&T pre-loads over two dozen apps, and includes another utility that pushes notifications and attempts to trick you into re-installing its apps and other app trails. It's just disgusting. My understanding is the T-Mobile model is far better in this respect.

T-Mobile may be better, but it's not perfect, and that's because every carrier has a vested interest in you using its software suite, whether it's the streaming service that comes pre-loaded, like AT&T Now or HBO Max, or the telephony components that promote proprietary security and privacy suites, such as the ones preloaded on T-Mobile and Verizon devices.

If you buy an unlocked Galaxy S20 (opens in new tab), for instance, the carriers can't assert the same amount of control over your experience, and tend to limit the available features as a result. For instance, because Samsung never went through the process of certifying the unlocked Galaxy S10e (opens in new tab), a phone released in February 2019 and is still considered an "active" device in Samsung's lineup, AT&T refuses to let unlocked variants access its VoLTE service even though it is more than capable of doing so. Is that its prerogative? Sure, but it's still not consumer-friendly.

Just a day after the AT&T revelation came to light, Android Police was tipped of a similar move by T-Mobile with an even shorter timeframe. By January 2021, devices incompatible with T-Mobile's VoLTE service will not activate on the network at all, and the company will refuse to activate those devices starting August 4.

T-Mobile logo

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Now why is this happening, and why now? It's all about 5G, and about freeing up as much spectrum for the burgeoning standard as quickly as possible. Now that T-Mobile has shut down Sprint's 5G network and consolidated much of the infrastructure to form the New T-Mobile, it is priming itself to distinguish itself from AT&T and Verizon by flaunting its massive spectrum advantage.

It's already refarmed 2G spectrum to be used for LTE, and now it's doing the same with its 3G service. T-Mobile's current 5G network relies mostly on its low-band 600Mhz, which has limited bandwidth for high-speed use cases, along with Sprint's capacious 2.5Ghz windfall, which currently provides the best combination of speed and coverage nationwide. But it wants more, and early millimeter-wave deployments have proven largely fruitless in the hands of consumers.

AT&T has even more incentive to shut down its 3G network, as it's relying on only a small chunk of low-band 850Mhz spectrum for its consumer 5G network. As 5G devices proliferate throughout the country, keeping customers connected to those networks is going to be important to prove out the new standard's efficacy; right now, many 5G customers find themselves falling back to the more robust LTE towers that have been deployed for nearly a decade.

Ultimately, the 3G shutdown is going to be good for consumers. But carriers need to be transparent and generous with customers who still rely on it.

It's important to note that the move to shut down 3G is, in the long run, a good thing. Consumers will eventually benefit from having that same spectrum used by the much more efficient and flexible 5G standard. But the quiet and opaque way that carriers have communicated such a shutdown shows that there will be significant fallout and a long, clumsy transition period between now and then.

On the one hand, carriers are touting the inherent benefits of 5G in their marketing material, but without the real-world use cases to back it up, they're resorting to underhanded and devious ways of forcing customers to upgrade their phones.

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

9 Comments
  • I left Sprint about a month and a half ago after being with them from their Nextel beginnings of two phones and business only customers. So...30 years? Or close to it. I left them in part because of the merger. I got almost no signal at our newest abode and those I spoke with out here complained that they got almost no signal with T-Mobile either. If I couldn't use WiFI to call (power's out? No cell service at all) I had no service. Verizon, which seems to cover Michigan really well, was way out of my price range so, as much as I dislike Xfinity's cable, I decided to try their Mobile service. They use Verizon towers after all. Low and behold, I have service in the house, outside the house, 99% of the areas I travel in which are all rural and I'm paying $60 a month for two lines. AND! When I put their SIM card in the phone, there's no bloatware! Nothing. You want to use their app? You have to download it, but you don't have to use it. I brought a Samsung Galaxy Note 9 and a Samsung Galaxy 9S Plus, both factory unlocked to Xfinity's mobile service. I thought I'd dislike them almost as much as I do their cable service, but the customer service was stellar, there are no contracts, the price was right...So far, so good and no hoops to jump through so we'll see what happens with the 5G stuff but right now, it's not an issue with them.
  • The situation with 5G on prepaid carriers deserves another article altogether. Probably this week given all that’s happening.
  • Xfinity Mobile isn't prepaid. At least my plan is not. Mine is a straightforward plan similar to my old Sprint plan, billed the month after the service.
  • This article ignores stuff about "tech companies need to make big profits to invest in infrastructure and R&D so they won't get left behind." You know, inconvenient reality. Background: AT&T decided that "vertical integration" was the way to go. Internet, cable, mobile, and content to sell on all 3. So they bought DirectTV (cost $40 billion plus assuming their $20 billion debt load so really $60 billion) and Time Warner ($85 billion). But not long after, a wave of cord-cutting came along. As well as the 5G thing which will (eventually) threaten traditional cable too. So, AT&T is confronted with A) a pile of debt and B) declining cable/satellite subscriptions which was their primary method of paying the debt off. You say "they should prioritize their customers over their shareholders." Well, if they fall further behind Verizon and T-Mobile in 5G, neither will be a problem. Their customers will migrate to Verizon and T-Mobile and they won't have any shareholders because they will be bankrupt. Customers with unlocked phones switch from phone company to phone company looking for the best deal. That is pro-consumer, but AT&T needs customers to sign up for HBO Max to pay off their Time Warner debt. So of course they are going to prefer customers who commit to them and their streaming services. As for 3G/nonVoLTE customers, AT&T is probably losing more money by maintaining a network for them than they are making. And keeping that network going prevents them from using their 3G infrastructure for 5G. Look, JawBone and FitBit once dominated the fitness tracker industry. JawBone was once worth $1.5 billion and they actually branched out from fitness tracker hardware and software into other hardware. FitBit was worth eve more. Look at them now. JawBone no longer exists. They went bankrupt, their assets were liquidated and the great hardware that they sold to millions of consumers is unsupported. If the EU and the DoJ block the FitBit sale, the same thing will happen to them: they will go broke, their products will be unsupported, their assets will be liquidated to the highest bidder, including their data which is allegedly the reason why no one wants Google to buy them in the first place. If you think that the same thing can't happen to AT&T you aren't dealing with economic reality. There is probably no one company big enough to buy them - or would be allowed to by the DOJ and EU - but bits and pieces of them would be chopped up and farmed off to a number of entertainment, communications, technology, media and equity companies. It would be better were AT&T to just spin off or sell the assets they acquired and focus on saving their core business(es) but thanks to the cord-cutting reality and the fact that 5G (Samsung is currently working on even faster 6G) will replace ISP's as we know it within 10 years, sacrificing everything else and doubling down on getting their mobile network as big and fast as possible is going to be the core component of any survival plan, and anything/everything that isn't part of that is going to have to be sacrificed.
  • You are ignoring the fact that AT&T is NOT the old "Ma Bell". It was Southwestern Bell and it bought up all kinds of other struggling regional Baby Bells in the late 80's and early 90's and then bought the trademark of AT&T and relabeled itself. It also got most of the AT&T fiber backbone business, and that is it's cash-cow.
    The management made a lot of arrogant, ignorant, bad bets to try to Vertically Integrate at the same time that the US Government started paying it over $1 Billion/year for access to it's fiber backbone in the name of "the War on Terror". This gave them more cash than brains, then came the deal with Apple to exclusively sell the iPhone and suddenly they were FLUSH with cash. They had visions of re-creating the old "Ma Bell" and being able to charge usury rates at will, and then the crash came in 2008. Their lucrative Long-Distance business evaporated with the onset of cheap, reliable SIP calls. Out of that came competition, Verizon began getting off the CDMA schtick, T-Mobile merger, dropping revenue and burgeoning maintenance costs, along with the Direct TV debacle, and now they are actually forced to compete for business. Comcast has made big inroads into their corporate backbone business, and overseas they are no longer the only choice for a multi-national company's private network, and the rise of the Chinese comms industry threatens all their former monopolies.
    They are saddled with huge amounts of debt, aging infrastructure, top-heavy management, and a culture of complacency where they would rather deploy lobbyists to DC than engineers to their fiber backbones.
    The road ahead does not look good for AT&T, so they are squeezing as much blood out of those rocks as they can.
  • Even when I used to work hand in hand with AT&T engineers and even train their staff, I knew they were not my friend. I almost ditched them right around the iPhone 7 time because they would not budge on price, until I came in with a contract from Sprint, filled in and ready to sign, that AT&T finally gave me a decent price break. They were hostile for any service issues, and I've WATCHED AT&T service techs lie to customers, blaming them for phone issues. And if customers who bought their phones at the AT&T store get treated like that, you can imagine how a person with an unlocked phone gets treated like a red-headed stepchild. My current phone fully supports VoLTE and I've been using it for two years that way, but probably because they have not decided to block me yet. The phone also fully supports WiFi calling, and AT&T blocks it based on IME. From a function perspective, I like AT&T's services. Today I ran a literal FM radio station, feeding content from my phone into the broadcast mixer then directly to the transmitter on the roof, and simultaneously live streaming the video feed to YouTube through the same phone. Everything went well and the people were all complimenting on the quality, having no idea the whole thing was running through a cellphone in the parking lot. So, I'm not looking forward to dropping AT&T from that perspective, but I won't miss the condescending attitude in the store.
  • Welp as long At&t keep paying there share holder's like myself those quarterly dividends I'll keep buying me some T 🤑🤑🤑
  • Carriers have never been a customer's friend at anytime...
  • THIS. It's been this way since cell phones were called car phones and were physically mounted in your car.