Can I ditch Sprint without paying an early termination fee?

Getting out of a wireless contract early isn't easy. In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers some advice to one Sprint subscriber.

What happens when you sign a two-year contract with a carrier and you soon discover that network is painfully slow?

Unfortunately, you may be stuck with that service. In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some advice on what one Sprint customer can do to get out of his contract without paying a hefty early termination fee. I also offer some information on the new Sprint 4G LTE deployment in Atlanta.

Breaking up with Sprint

Dear Maggie,
I have a family plan with Sprint. I have an iPhone 4S and three iPhone 4's on Sprint. We love the phones, but Sprint's 3G service is painfully slow. I now understand the meaning of quality (speeds) over quantity (unlimited).

I previously had AT&T's 3G service. Back then I owned an iPhone 3GS. I really loved that service and the speed. I only went to Sprint because I thought we could get more for our money with the unlimited data service. But the service is so slow, we can barely use our phones. I'd like to switch back to AT&T. But I've only been on my contract with Sprint since February of this year.

Still, I just want to leave. I can't take it anymore! I can probably get the same phones again by selling them on eBay then buying them at AT&T or I can wait until the iPhone 5 comes out. But if there is any way I could get out of my ETF from Sprint, that would be terrific.

Please help me I'm in desperate need!

Thanks,
Jonathan

Dear Jonathan,
You are correct that ending a wireless contract early is very expensive. In your case, you'd be out about $1,400 in fees.

Sprint changed its fee policy last year, and since September 9, 2011, it charges $350 per device to terminate a contract. The early termination fee is prorated, which means that as more time passes, you will pay less to terminate the fee. The way Sprint figures out the fee is that it charges $20 per month for each month that's left on your contract with a maximum fee of $350 and a minimum of $100 per device. The prorated fees don't kick in until 18 months into your contract. Since you got your phones in February, you've got another couple of months left until that fee will start to go down.

This is why it's so important to do a bit of research before you enter one of these contracts. Before you sign up for a contract with a new carrier, you need to ask friends, family co-workers anyone else you know who lives and works where you need cell phone coverage what they think of their service. This will give you a much better idea about coverage and the quality of the network service instead of relying solely on the carrier's coverage map.

Is there any way you can get out of paying this fee? I'll be honest with you. It's going to be tough. I'm afraid the reason you have given for ending your contract is probably not good enough to get you out of your contract with Sprint.

"Unless he is still within the 14-day or 30-day window when he can return his phone without penalty, your reader is likely out of luck," said attorney Michael Aschenbrener of Aschenbrener Law. "Cell phone contracts generally do not promise any certain speeds for mobile Internet service, so slow service is not likely a basis to cancel the contract without an ETF.

That said, you should double check the fine-print of your contract again. But as Michael Aschenbrener notes, I am almost certain that Sprint makes no promises about the performance of its network in its contract. Even in its advertising, you likely won't find any references to specific network speeds. Most carriers don't make promises about the actual speeds they deliver. They may profess that their network is the fastest or their service is X times faster than competitors' networks. But in general they don't offer specifics. And the reason for that is simple, there are lots of factors that affect wireless broadband performance.

Since Sprint is not legally breaking its portion of the contract, it will take some negotiating on your part to get Sprint to help you out.

"Generally speaking, if a customer terminates service before the end of their agreement they would be liable for an early termination fee, based on the time remaining on the agreement," a Sprint representative told me via e-mail.

But all hope is not lost. The Sprint representative suggests discussing your issue with a customer service representative.

"Because every customer's situation is different, our Care team looks at each on a case-by-case basis so we can understand the issues a customer may be experiencing," he said.

You can also keep your eye out for other changes in your contract that could allow you to terminate the contract without a fee. Wireless carriers are constantly changing the fine print in their service contracts, and subscribers are pretty much forced to accept the new terms. But when this happens, carriers must give you a period of time to review the changes. Typically they give you about 30 days to look over the new terms. If you happen to find a change in the terms and it's still within this window, you could terminate your service without penalty. The trick is being aware of these new changes. The carriers don't typically advertise them so you have to be checking your contract for changes.

Another option for you may be to transfer your contract to someone else. Most carriers will allow you the option to transfer your service to another person. There are several Web sites that claim to match you with people interested in taking over other people's service contracts. There are usually nominal fees associated with this, but they are often cheaper than paying a full ETF. People may want to take over a contract because they don't want to pay a carrier activation fee or they're looking for a shorter contract. Some sites that help match people for swapping contracts are Cell Plan Depot, Cell Swapper, and Cell Trade USA.

Personally, I have not used any of these sites, so I can't vouch for how well they work. But it's worth looking into if you are really dissatisfied with Sprint and you can't convince them to waive or reduce your early termination fee.

The other option for you is to wait until Sprint deploys 4G LTE in your area. Of course, this would mean you'd have to upgrade your phones to ones that support LTE. Sprint claims that by the end of next year it will have LTE where ever it currently has 3G service.

Good luck!

Spotty 4G LTE service for Sprint customers in Atlanta

Dear Maggie,
Last week, you wrote an article on "Sprint officially launches 4G LTE in 15 cities," in which Sprint indicated that it now offers 4G LTE coverage in the Atlanta area. They even indicate this in their new service coverage maps.

However, the truth is, huge swaths of Atlanta -- particularly in the city itself and most intown neighborhoods -- are still not getting any 4G LTE signal. If you follow the Sprint community blog postings, you'll see this.

When you call Sprint customer service, they say we should be getting coverage, as indicated in the coverage map. However, when you visit a Sprint store within the city limits of Atlanta, they say it could take months before service is offered here. As a loyal Sprint customer who just upgraded to the new Evo 4G LTE phone last month, I feel betrayed and frustrated. I am also upset that Sprint is essentially misleading customers with its LTE coverage map (which apparently represents what their GOAL of coverage for cities like Atlanta, rather than the actual/current coverage.)

I'd like to know when Sprint plans to offer coverage THROUGHOUT Atlanta. And I'd really appreciate it if you could bring this issue to light in your column, so other consumers are not fooled by Sprint's misleading advertising.

Thank you,
Doug

Dear Doug,
As you indicated in your question, Sprint did announce that it has launched its 4G LTE service in several markets, including Atlanta and several suburbs surrounding Atlanta.

I contacted Sprint to see if someone could respond to your complaint and the complaints that are flooding the Sprint community message boards with people from Atlanta complaining of lack of 4G LTE service.

Here is the response from Sprint's spokeswoman via e-mail:

"We are seeing these comments about Atlanta. And we're are letting customers know that they will continue to see improvement in coverage over time as we continue to roll-out service there. The announcement on July 16 was to let customers know that Sprint has begun the LTE deployment. We are continuing to add new sites every day. Coverage maps on sprint.com are updated regularly to reflect the most current view of coverage. It's also important to note that coverage maps are high-level estimates, and there are many variables that could impact coverage including weather, buildings, geography as examples that could impact coverage and service."

She also noted that customers with 4G LTE devices in markets where Sprint has begun offering service should make sure that their 4G LTE radios are turned on. Subscribers can go to "Network Settings" on their devices to enable this function. She said that Sprint will likely complete the roll out of its service in these markets within the next few months. But she also indicated that there are issues with some phones when it comes to getting a 4G LTE signal.

"We have seen some issues with 4G LTE pickup on select 4G LTE device and it's currently under investigation. A number of extraneous factors - including device problems -- may also affect network pick up. We suggest waiting a few minutes in the same location for the device to find a signal."

She also said that the coverage maps that Sprint offers are for on-street coverage only. And he noted that coverage may not exist or may be diminished inside buildings that have a lot of brick and concrete.

The bottom line here is that it's still early days for Sprint's 4G LTE network. The company is still building out its network. Customers should be aware that even when the coverage map or a salesperson says there is coverage in particular area, it's best to check with friends and neighbors you know who use their devices in those spots before you buy. Also keep in mind that you can return any new device you purchase within 30 days. And as Sprint says, it plans to eventually cover all its existing 3G areas with the 4G LTE service. So if you get a good strong 3G signal today, chances are that eventually you will get Sprint's 4G LTE service eventually, too.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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