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An AT&T customer service horror story

A CNET reporter learns some important lessons from AT&T: you don't always need phone service to get DSL, and dealing with customer service can be extremely frustrating.

What came first: the bad customer service or the hard-to-find deal?

I ask this for a reason: After more than three years of paying for AT&T phone service solely for the purpose of getting DSL, I have come to learn that the phone service is completely unnecessary. My aggravating (and embarrassing) path to that knowledge should serve as a lesson for companies in how not to do customer service if you want to retain your customers. It's also a valuable lesson for consumers, who have to stay vigilant in order to get the deal that's right for them.

Here's what happened: A few days ago I called AT&T for the umpteenth time to complain about my bill and, as usual, I mentioned my resentment over being charged for phone service I don't use because I have a mobile phone. After getting bounced to four different representatives, one of them said the words I've waited years to hear: "Do you want Internet only?"

I was then transferred to the Internet-only department, where someone took my order to cancel my phone service. Curious how long they've been offering DSL-only service, I searched the Web while I was on the phone and uncovered an article from November 2007 on our very own CNET News site entitled "AT&T quietly rolls out reasonably-priced unbundled DSL." Ouch. I also saw it on AT&T's Web site, which I didn't expect to offer me information that I couldn't have gotten from numerous calls to customer service rep.

OK, I should have been a more diligent consumer. Lesson learned. Nonetheless, it's not overly demanding to expect that someone at AT&T should have told me about the DSL-only service before that day--we're talking about 9 or 10 calls to customer service since spring 2007. So why didn't they?

I wasn't able to ask that question to the customer service rep who was helping me cancel my phone service because right around then we got disconnected and she didn't call me back. So I called AT&T again and was shuffled between several departments before getting to someone who could help me. I looked at the clock and realized that I had spent over an hour on the phone with AT&T.

When I asked why I was never told about this DSL-only service before, the rep said he didn't know. Annoyed that I had wasted so much time and energy on the phone with AT&T and frustrated at the notion that I had been charged for service I didn't need, I told him to cancel both my phone and DSL services.

Later that night an AT&T customer service manager called to discuss my decision to dump AT&T. I asked him why in my numerous calls to AT&T I was never told about the DSL-only option. Instead I was offered "low-use" phone line service, or they tried to get me to sign up for a U-verse package that works with the TV, another device I don't use at home. The manager's reply: "I don't know the specifics of the conversations." When I pressed him I was told, "I hear what you are saying, but there's not an obligation for us to advertise that service."

He then told me that the DSL-only service wasn't available when I had signed up. Later, an AT&T spokeswoman confirmed that was not accurate. AT&T began offering the service in my area in 2006.

The manager admitted my phone account showed "very minimal use" and noted that the last time I had used my landline was in May. (Ironically, that was when I still had an iPhone and couldn't get coverage on AT&T's wireless service while working from home, so I was forced to use my landline. I got rid of my iPhone shortly after that.)

I suggested to the manager that AT&T should repay me the $600 or so that I had spent on phone service over the years since I had barely used it. Instead, he offered to refund the amount I had paid since I last used the phone, which came to about $60.

Infuriated at the notion that I had been effectively forced to pay hundreds of dollars for a service I didn't need, I contacted an AT&T spokeswoman to get official comment. After spending two days diving into my account, she told me that the customer reps probably didn't mention DSL-only to me because they actually charge more for the unbundled service than they do for the bundled service. In other words I would be paying about $5 more for the so-called "naked" DSL, or DSL Direct.

Got that? They were doing me favor, even if they were inexplicably unable to tell me about it.

"We're not sure why it wasn't offered, but we're very sorry," AT&T spokeswoman Jenny Bridges said. "We're very sorry you've had this frustration."

She asked if I wanted to reconnect my DSL only and pay about $45 a month after taxes and fees. (New customers can pay $14.95 per month for a year, according to a promotion that the company began offering in August, she said.) I declined, explaining that after what I had gone through I would prefer to try another company.

I told her I was baffled at the customer service I had received. Any number of customer service reps could have halted my complaints and calls by telling me that there was a DSL-only service but it would cost me more than I was paying. I had mistaken incompetence for sneakiness.

"You definitely should have been told there was a standalone (DSL) offer and that you were eligible for it and what the price was so you could have made your own decision," Bridges said, sounding truly apologetic. "Based on your situation, we are going to do some re-education with our customer service reps."

While I am heartened to hear I didn't lose money by not knowing about the unbundled DSL service, I am amazed that AT&T's billing practices are so confusing and its customer service reps so unhelpful. I have an advantage as a reporter to be able to pick up a phone and (hopefully) get answers from a spokesperson. Other people don't have that leverage. And judging from an informal survey of friends and acquaintances, many people are surprised to learn that they don't need their AT&T phone service to get DSL.

After doing some digging into the unbundled DSL issue I think I see why the company wouldn't necessarily want to encourage customers to cancel their phone service.

Offering an unbundled DSL was a concession AT&T and Verizon made to the FCC in order to get approval to merge with SBC and Bell South (AT&T) and MCI (Verizon). They were only required to "offer" unbundled DSL, but there was no language in the agreements that they had to actually tell customers about the new offering.

"These companies continue to bundle services together to protect their legacy service, which is voice," said Joel Kelsey, a political adviser at the tech and media policy nonprofit Free Press, a frequent critic of telecommunications companies.

AT&T's landline service is in decline as mobile phone usage increases. So, desperate to stem the tide of phone service cancellations, AT&T is making phone-plus-DSL cheaper than DSL alone.

I asked AT&T spokeswoman Bridges if there was some technical reason the company needed to charge more for standalone DSL than for bundled service, or if it was merely an economic strategy. She admitted that it was the latter. "The bundle is what helps you get the better price," she said. Yes, it's counter-intuitive and it's terrible customer service to not explain it, but then, to paraphrase the comedienne Lily Tomlin: They're the phone company. They don't care. They don't have to.

Still, there are a few lessons learned in all this: If you are communicating with customer service at any carrier, be prepared to take good notes that you can refer to later if necessary. Ask for the customer service rep's name and direct phone number in case you get cut off. If you want something particular, ask directly if they have that service type or anything similar to it. Find out exactly how much more or less you will save or spend if you change your plan. And if you aren't satisfied with your service and it's not going to change, threaten to cancel your account. That is more likely to get results than anything else you could say.

So where does that leave me for Internet options? I've had people suggest Sonic.net, which offers DSL-only at prices starting at $18.95. Their customer service is excellent, according to Broadband Reports and several friends of mine. Another friend suggested I check out the Virgin MiFi wireless router, which offers unlimited access for $40 a month without requiring a contract. The hardware costs $150.

I also hear about this thing called the Web, where you can find out about all the best deals all the time. Mea culpa.

Update 1:20 p.m. PDT: One reader writes that he was able to get the introductory DSL-only price from AT&T even though he was an existing customer by insisting that he should be rewarded for being a loyal customer. Basically, push for any offer and insist. You might just get it.

Update 2:35 p.m. PDT: Another reader says he forced a carrier to lower his fee for a particular service after providing a neighbor's address in a Web site form as a test and seeing that the neighbor was offered a better deal than he was paying. Then when the reps dragged their feet on things, he threatened to go to the attorney general's office, and that quickened the pace.