Ask Maggie: On buggy Android upgrades

Also in this week's Ask Maggie advice column find out why Verizon Wireless is able to charge more for its service and why T-Mobile gives customers who don't sign a contract a break on their monthly fees.

As smartphones get more sophisticated, so does the software that runs them. And that means a major pain in the neck for consumers: buggy software upgrades.

Ask Maggie

Just like with your computer, smartphone software is constantly evolving and upgrades are rolled out all the time. While new versions of software often add more functionality, sometimes they're buggy and they break things that worked perfectly well with the previous version of software.

This is a major headache for many smartphone subscribers, especially those who use Android phones. In this week's Ask Maggie column, I answer one reader who wants to know if a buggy software upgrade is enough to get him out of his two-year cell phone contract with Sprint.

Another reader wants to know how Verizon Wireless can get away with charging so much more for its service than other wireless operators, such as Sprint and T-Mobile USA. And finally, another reader asks why T-Mobile charges subscribers who sign up for a two-year contract and get a subsidized cell phone pay $20 more a month for cell phone service.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send an e-mail to me at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Can a buggy software upgrade get me out of my contract?

Dear Maggie,

I am a Sprint subscriber using an HTC Hero . In May, Sprint updated my Android software to version 2.1. That update, however, caused significant problems including sluggish performance, the need to regularly reinstall my e-mail account, and, most importantly, the inability to use my car's Bluetooth. Both Sprint and HTC are aware of these issues and have told me that they will resolve the issues with a future software upgrade.

It has been more than three months since I contacted Sprint and HTC. And there has been neither an update nor an announced release date for an update. The lack of Bluetooth connectivity in my car is a serious issue, and I would like Sprint to replace my phone with a newer Android device. They have refused, stating that they'll only exchange my phone for another Hero that, they acknowledge, will have the same issues.

I still have one year left on my contract. What are my rights and how do I resolve this issue?

Thanks,

R.E.W.

Dear R.E.W,

First of all, you are not the only person who has had these problems. Problems with the Android 2.1 software upgrade on HTC devices have been discussed on several message boards for months. The problems are not universal and they don't affect every HTC device, but some of the most common problems that people have noted are the following:

  • Operating system slower and less responsive after upgrade.
  • Loss of contacts
  • Frequent browser crashes
  • Frequent e-mail reboots

I talked to CNET Reviews editor Kent German about what you can do to fix these issues. He suggested resetting the phone to its original factory settings and seeing what happens. This may work, but it might not. He also said that sometimes, the functionality just fixes itself after a while.

In terms of the Bluetooth issue, I found a post on an HTC forum from an HTC Hero user who said that he found Bluetooth connectivity with the Hero under the 2.1 update is dependent on the car kit or Bluetooth device used. This particular user had a better connection using a more modern Pioneer head unit rather than older Bluetooh products.

I reached out to Sprint to ask if the company could provide information about when to expect an update or whether it will allow customers to swap out phones. Unfortunately, I did not hear a response to my request.

The issue you are experiencing illustrates a fundamental problem with the whole Android model. Google has developed the Android operating system software, but then phone manufacturers, such as HTC, add software to make the operating system work with particular device features, and then wireless operators add their own bit of software so that the device works on their networks. When updates come out, they can be buggy because they haven't been tested on all the various pieces of hardware on all the various carriers. Some new features may interfere with existing capabilities.

At the end of the day, the customer is left wondering who to contact to fix the bugs and problems. It's difficult to point fingers when no one is taking responsibility.

So let's say you have tried to reset your phone and you don't want to buy new Bluetooth audio gear. What are your options now? I talked to my go-to legal expert Michael Aschenbrener, attorney at the law firm Edelson McGuire in Chicago, about whether you can get out of your cell phone contract. Aschenbrener's firm has been involved in several class-action lawsuits against wireless operators over early termination fees.

Unfortunately, he said that you likely don't have the right to terminate your contract without paying an early termination fee. The situation you're going through is not covered by the relevant section of Sprint's Terms and Conditions, so Sprint probably won't allow termination without an ETF.

But he said that all is not necessarily lost.

You could qualify as a Sprint Premier customer if your current service plan is at least $69.99 per month. And since you're a smartphone customer, it's likely your plan costs at least that per month, unless you are on a very old plan. As a Sprint Premier customer, you are able to upgrade to a new phone every 12 months rather than every two years, he said.

So assuming you are happy with Sprint's service, you could upgrade to a new device, such as the Evo or the Epic. Both of these phones run Android and have the latest generation hardware components. Of course, you'd still have to pay the subsidized price of the new phone, which is around $200.

You can find more information on Sprint's Premier plans on its Web site.

I hope that helps, and good luck!

How Verizon Wireless gets away with charging more

Hello Maggie,

I have always wondered why in such a competitive market are some wireless services so much less expensive than others? For example, Sprint and T-Mobile USA offer much lower cost plans than AT&T and Verizon Wireless. I find it so surprising that Verizon, in particular, has the most wireless subscribers since they tend to have the highest priced services. How can this be?

Thanks,

Calvin

Dear Calvin,

The reason is simple. Verizon Wireless has the widest footprint in terms of cell phone coverage. And it has typically gotten high marks for its service quality. As a result, the company has been able to charge more for its services, because customers perceive it as offering a superior service.

But that perception could be changing as other carriers make improvements to their networks. T-Mobile is currently rolling out faster 3G service throughout its footprint , which hits most major cities in the U.S. And Sprint is partnering with Clearwire and reselling Clearwire's 4G wireless broadband service .

As unemployment continues to stay high and people look for ways to cut expenses, wireless subscribers may be looking for better deals on service. And Sprint and T-Mobile may look like tempting replacements. Smaller, regional carriers that offer prepaid service, such as MetroPCS and Cricket, may also offer low-cost alternatives for some consumers.

It will be interesting to see how Verizon reacts as T-Mobile and Sprint improve their networks and regional operators add more cool phones to their prepaid lineups.

Verizon is also preparing to roll out its own 4G wireless network . And because of the wireless spectrum it uses, it will likely continue to have better coverage than its competitors.

The company is also starting to embrace the prepaid market. On Thursday, it announced new prepaid data plans for smartphones and feature phones . Unfortunately for consumers, it doesn't look like Verizon took the opportunity to provide consumers with a better deal by going prepaid. The 3G prepaid data package offers $30-a-month unlimited plans for smartphone users and $10 a month for 25MB of data for feature phone users. The company will charge 20 cents per megabyte if users go over that limit.

The company's announcement didn't mention anything about text messaging, so that is an additional charge, and subscribers must still sign up for voice service. It looks like the service is more for people looking to avoid a contract rather than people looking to save a buck or two on their monthly service.

Deciphering T-Mobile's data plans

Dear Maggie,

I recently was looking for a new cell phone carrier, and while looking, something struck me as odd with T-Mobile's cell phone plans. If you sign a contract and pick a smartphone, you have to spend $20 a month more for the required data plan than you would if you pay for the phone and not sign a contract. On the "Cell Phone Plans" page, it sounds like you pay more because of the discount you get for the phone when you sign a contract. However, didn't all the carriers state the early termination fee was to cover the discount?

I've already chosen another carrier for other reasons, but I still hope you could clear up my confusion.

Brian

Dear Brian,

The early termination fee that carriers charge covers the cost of the phone subsidy if you leave your contract early. If you don't cancel your contract, the carrier makes up the subsidy through your monthly service charges over the life of your contract. If, for example, you get the T-Mobile MyTouch with a two-year contract, you'd pay $180 for the phone. The actual retail price of the phone is $430. This means that T-Mobile is subsidizing the cost of the phone by $250.

In order to recoup the cost of the subsidy, T-Mobile needs to charge you at least $10.41 over 24 months to get the $250 back on the phone. There are also likely other additional costs associated with footing the bill for the subsidy. But the fact that the company is actually charging $20 extra per month for service plans for people with subsidized phones suggests that T-Mobile is also making a bigger profit on the subsidized customer.

What's interesting is that T-Mobile is the only wireless operator to actually give consumers who buy their phones without a subsidy a break on their monthly service charge. Customers who buy their phones at full price from other carriers still pay the same monthly service charge as those who got a subsidy for their phones.

 

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