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On Nov. 24, 2003, it officially became easier to get cell-phone service. That was the day the major mobile-phone networks agreed to stop shrugging off federal regulations and start letting customers transfer their phone numbers from one provider to another.
For me, the news came at a perfect time: Sprint, my provider, didn’t work in large hunks of Fairfax, where I spend most of my days, and I no longer had an office, so I was hard to reach on land lines. I had lost my old, banged-up cell phone in a park. Without a cell phone or regular e-mail access, I was nearly unreachable. Finally, my Palm organizer died.
Clearly, I would need to get one of those swank new organizer-phones. I shopped around and chose AT&T Wireless, which offered a relatively compact model with on-the-go e-mail and Internet capabilities. On Nov. 26, two days after portability kicked in, I jumped ship. The transfer took 20 minutes: AT&T told me it would port over my old number and would even cancel my Sprint account for me.
But on the day my phone was supposed to arrive, I got a call from AT&T instead. My credit card had been turned down, and the order had been automatically canceled. (I later learned that American Express had thought the phone model I chose was a little too upscale for a guy whose usual charges range from $30 at the grocery to $45 for a family lunch at Chili’s.) And my old phone number, the customer-service rep told me, was attached to that defunct order, in telecommunications nowhere-land. The technical-support department would rescue it. Within an hour and a half, a tech-support guy declared victory. All was well.
Three days later, on the day my phone was rescheduled to arrive, AT&T called again. My credit card had been turned down—the same credit card as before, not the alternative one I’d given them. There was no record of my previous call. My phone number was still astray. This time, I was told, it would not be tech-support that would recover it, but some other division—the “portability work group.”
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“It’s fair to say there were bumps during the first two months,” says AT&T spokesperson Rochelle Cohen. Mobile-phone companies—who’d appealed to the Federal Communications Commission to push back the deadline for portability several times—struggled to reconcile different account information, Cohen says. “Portability has been a big challenge to all the carriers,” she says, “but one they’re all facing.”
All I knew was that I was becoming increasingly anxious to get the phone, and it wasn’t just the annoyance of bantering back and forth with AT&T. Floating around in the deep Virginia suburbs, I had become disconnected from my previous life—unreachable by friends, family, or colleagues. Cell phones may be wireless, but mine was the only thing that could tether me to my social and work lives.
Two days later I got the phone. It was, I was pleased to see after all that, pretty cool. I typed on its tiny backlit QWERTY keyboard (learning with regret that I would now always have to carry my reading glasses). I got the e-mail program running, snapped a photo with the built-in camera, and sent the image to my wife. And I fired up the cell-phone application and dialed my home phone number—the regular one, the one attached to a wire. It rang. After weeks without a mobile phone, I was back on the map. I was jacked into life again.
Or half-jacked, as it turned out. When my wife tried to call me the next day, she got a message saying that the “PCS number is unavailable.” But it wasn’t supposed to be a PCS number anymore. Somehow, in the wireless world, the number still led to my canceled Sprint account and my long-lost phone.
The transfer hadn’t worked after all: My number hadn’t come back from the netherworld. Like Orpheus, I was going to have to go down after it.
AT&T technical support became my drug of choice over the next few weeks. Like an addict telling himself that each hit would be his last, I allowed myself to hope that each call—with its two hours of hold time followed by a few desperate moments of human interaction—would be the last I needed to get a working phone.
Instead, I was using more and more: going from a call every other day to daily to sometimes twice a day. Each time, a new and different service representative would promise to get my phone working, subtly or not-so-subtly suggest that the previous reps I’d talked to were incompetent, and give me some new reason that my problem was still unresolved. With the exception of one woman, who dismissively told me to just carry my old phone if I wanted to get incoming calls, each one was friendly and confidence-inspiring. But because nothing ever happened between my calls, I would start from scratch each time, repeating the same information, answering the same questions.
I became the help-line equivalent of the guy in the movie who rambles into a tiny Southern town expecting to eat lunch, fuel up, and go, but can’t. First the emotionally disturbed waitress makes a pass at him, then his car breaks down, then he loses his wallet so he can’t get on the bus, and then the sheriff (who turns out to be the waitress’s uncle) takes a dislike to him and locks him up while all the while friendly-seeming citizens ask him why he wouldn’t want to settle down in a peaceful little town like this one.
Hope came when I got a text message, which I had been told would be the sign that the phone was functional. That information had been false. The messages, sent to my phone number, could find the address. But phone calls were as lost as ever. My number had inched a little further into AT&Ts embrace, but its legs were still in the jaws of Sprint. I lamely suggested to a client that he could text-message me and I would call him right back.
Then, unexpectedly, I found an ally. One afternoon, after a particularly long wait (the system had told me ominously that my hold time would be more than 15 minutes, rather than the usual 10, which translated into three hours rather than the usual two), I got an actual compassionate human being, though there was no way I could know it at the time. A man with an East Indian accent told me what I’d memorized by now—that he’d have to call Sprint, wait on hold, and ask the Sprint rep to release my number. But if I would wait with him, he’d make the call right then. “It goes easier when the customer is on the phone and can answer questions,” he assured me. So we sat together on hold, listening to the soft holiday music on Sprint’s phone-mail system. I was nearly canine in my gratitude.
Ninety minutes later, we got through. In a polite and efficient exchange, Sprint gave my number wholly and without reservation to AT&T. My ally told me my phone would be working in 48 hours.
It wasn’t quite that quick, but almost. By this time, AT&T, like the immune system of a sick patient, had gone into high gear, and I was receiving one or two phone calls a day from someone assuring me that my phone would be working soon, or asking me if my phone was working yet, or suggesting that I try turning it off, letting it rest for 20 minutes, and turning it back on.
Finally, on Christmas Day, after almost four weeks and 35 hours on hold, I got the best gift a Jewish kid could get: a phone call. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Meganck.