Ask Maggie: On wireless-contract fine print

CNET's Maggie Reardon also addresses buying an e-reader in her weekly advice column responding to readers' wireless and broadband questions.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
11 min read

Have you ever wondered why it's so difficult to find information about when your wireless contract ends? Or have you ever gotten so angry at a service provider that you threaten to cancel all the services you get bundled from them?

Well, you're not alone. This week in Ask Maggie, I answer one reader's question about finding information on a wireless carrier's Web site as to when a contract ends. I checked in with the major carriers and will walk you through how you can access information about contract expiration and early-termination fees online.

I also answer a question from a dissatisfied Verizon Fios customer and try to help another reader figure out if she should buy an iPad or a Kindle 3.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have 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.

Deciphering cell phone terms and conditions

Dear Maggie,

One question that I've been thinking about for a long time is why is it so difficult to find out when my cell phone contract expires and how much my early-termination fee would be if I cancel.

It is not something that a carrier will readily provide to you, unless you wait 15 or 20 minutes to speak with an agent on the phone. I have looked for this information on the Web site of my service provider, and I haven't been able to find it. And now, with prorated early-termination fees, I'd like to know in real time what I owe if I cancel early. So why do wireless companies make this so difficult?


Dear Bob,

I reached out to all four major U.S. wireless operators, and representatives from all said their companies provide some information about contract expiration dates and ETF penalties to customers online.

But much of this information is vague or not specific to individual customers, and if specific customer information about ETFs is available, it's not always easy for subscribers to find. In any case, I'd agree that there is a problem.

As a little experiment, I tried finding out this information through my service provider. I am an AT&T subscriber, and I logged onto my account to look for the terms of my contract. I was able to find out when I was eligible for an upgrade to a new phone, but I did not see a specific date indicating when my contract expires or what my ETF would be, if I canceled my service today. (All four major wireless operators now prorate their early-termination fees, so the penalty decreases the longer you are in your contract.)

After getting a response from AT&T about where I could find this information, I was able to see when my contract ends. While the information is available, it still took me clicking on three tabs to find it. So again, this supports my earlier statement that the information may be available, but it's not necessarily easy to find.

You aren't the only one who has questioned how wireless operators communicate service terms and contract issues to their customers. The Federal Communications Commission has been looking into this as well. Earlier this year, the agency sent letters to AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA, and Google, which was selling the Nexus One phone at the time, asking them to detail how they inform customers of their fees in statements on corporate Web sites, in brochures and sales scripts, and in monthly bills.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the time that he was struck by how much confusion there is among consumers regarding ETFs.

The carriers responded to the inquiry defending their ETFs. So far, the FCC hasn't hinted whether or not it will force carriers to change their practices or provide better information. But I think your question goes to the heart of the issue. Carriers may offer this information somewhere for customers, but if it's not easy to find, what's the point?

Here is what representatives from Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile told me about accessing contract and ETF information online.

Verizon Wireless
Verizon Wireless spokesman Tom Pica said "everything a customer needs, they can find online." He suggests going to MyVerizon.com. Click on "Change Plan," and customers should be able to locate that information, he said. He wasn't able to provide specific information for navigating the site.

Pica also said the company is readying a new mobile account system, which will make finding account information from a mobile phone easier.

AT&T spokeswoman Katie Tellier said customers can view their contract expiration date when accessing their account online (Att.com/mywireless). They should click on the "My Profile" tab on the far right of the screen. And then they can click on "User Info." This will show whether the contract has ended or provide a specific date for expiration. Also within this section, customers will see a hyperlink on ETFs--which will direct them to an Answer Center, providing specific details on AT&T's ETF policy and fees. This section also offers a two-page "Customer Service Summary" which is a PDF detailing the customer's service, plan, and support shortcuts.

Since everyone's account is different, and because ETFs vary, based on when someone signs up for a contract, AT&T encourages customers to call for specific information about their ETFs.

Sprint Nextel
Sprint Nextel spokeswoman Roni Singleton said customers are able to view their contract expiration date or whether they are still within contract from "My Sprint" at Sprint.com. But the full contract/terms of use are not available for individual subscribers there.

To find when contracts expire, a customer would log into My Sprint, select "My Account," and scroll over the "I Want To" tab in "About My Devices." For each device the customer has on his/her account, there is an "I Want To" tab. Once the box pops up, select the "See My Contract Details" link. When the customer clicks on that link, it lets him/her know when their contract expires.

In order to find out how much you'd owe if you cancel your contract, Sprint provides a chart that allows customers to calculate what their prorated ETF is in several ways online:

  • A link from the site footer to Sprint.com/termsandconditions and Sprint.com/etf
  • A full-page explanation in the services section of the site
  • Via search, type in "termination" or "early termination," and there will be links to detailed info.

T-Mobile USA
T-Mobile USA spokeswoman Kristin Warfield said T-Mobile subscribers can get general information about T-Mobile's ETFs within the "Terms & Conditions" link on the main T-Mobile Web site, at the bottom of the home page. There is also a link to the same general ETF policy details via the "Terms & Conditions" link at the bottom of the "MyT-Mobile" account page, which customers can access after logging into their account.

She said T-Mobile does not currently include details about individual ETFs on the customer's online account site. Instead, customers can estimate their ETFs by reading the terms and conditions online, knowing their contract start date (which is also listed on their contract), and making a general calculation.

Here is the ETF schedule for T-Mobile:

As listed in these Terms & Conditions, the early-termination fee is $200, if termination occurs with more than 180 days remaining on your term; $100, if termination occurs with 91 to 180 days remaining on your term; $50, if termination occurs with 31 to 91 days remaining on your term; and the lesser of $50 or your monthly recurring charges (including any applicable taxes and fees), if termination occurs in the last 30 days of your term.

For exact information about the term of users' contracts and the early-termination fee that would apply if they canceled their account, customers can call Customer Care.

Take that, Verizon!

Dear Maggie,

I have been a Verizon cell phone user for over 10 years now. I recently moved to a new apartment in New York City, and I had ordered Verizon's Fios high-speed Internet. It took them two weeks to get a technician to connect me. And the customer service was horrendous.

Because of my awful high-speed Internet experience with Verizon, I decided to penalize them by switching my cell phone service to AT&T.

I honestly think Verizon is falling to pieces due to their Fios failure and inability to manage customer service. After this high-speed Internet experience, I wish never to use Verizon in my life again, even if they offer the best phone in the world.

My question is: can Verizon really be losing customers to AT&T because of the iPhone, or is it because of the poor customer service that has led users like me to leave?


Dear Jessie,

It sounds like you definitely had a bad experience with Verizon. The short answer to your question is that people leave a particular service provider for a variety of reasons. Some customers, such as you, leave because they are unhappy with the service or customer support. Others leave because a competitor is offering a cooler phone or a better deal. Honestly, I would say Verizon and AT&T have both gained and lost customers due to customer frustration.

But your scenario raises an interesting question. Are companies that offer diverse services, such as Verizon, risking alienating customers when a subscriber has a poor experience on one of its many services?

I called Ross Rubin, an analyst at The NPD Group, to get his take. He said offering several different services can present a risk to a company's brand. But the fact that companies such as Verizon and AT&T are offering multiple services and enticing customers to sign up for bundles of service is actually making it more difficult to drop one service. Because people are locked into these bundles, which often offer discounts, people are more likely to stick with a service they aren't that happy with instead of canceling a part of the bundle.

"I'd say that it's pretty unusual for someone to do this," Rubin said. "If this reader was a Verizon Wireless customer for 10 years, he probably thought the service and support was adequate. So, in some ways, he is throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

As cable companies such as Comcast, Time Warner, and Cox Communications start adding wireless service to their product offerings, it will be interesting to see if poor experiences on a wireless service will harm their brand and subscription levels for other services.

As for having problems with Fios, you aren't alone. I've heard from several readers complaining about problems getting the service hooked up and also having billing issues after using the service. Several Web forums have also noted complaints about billing issues, such as customers getting billed for services they didn't sign up for and installation problems.

I contacted Verizon to find out if it could provide insight or comment on these issues. Spokeswoman Ellen Yu said Verizon has actually seen complaints for billing issues for Fios drop by nearly 50 percent this year, compared with last year.

She also pointed out that Fios has been rated the highest in customer satisfaction among residential TV customers for two years in a row and was rated No. 1 this year in high-speed Internet providers in the Eastern U.S. by J.D. Power and Associates.

Still, she admitted that sometimes customers face difficulties when first getting Fios installed. And she said there is always room for improvement.

"We can always do better and strive to do that every day," Yu said in an e-mail. "We work daily to make our customer's experiences and interactions with Verizon better."

Which e-reader? Kindle 3 or iPad?

Dear Maggie, I've been considering taking the plunge and buying an e-reader. With the new Kindle 3 out now, I can't decide if I should get that, or if I should spend more and get the Apple iPad. I know the iPad does more than the Kindle, which justifies the extra cost. But I just don't know what I should do. Any advice?


Dear Jennifer,

Whether you should get an iPad or a Kindle depends on a few things. For one, where do you plan on reading? If you will read outdoors or in a room with lots of natural light, a Kindle is likely to be easier on your eyes. But if you plan to read in the dark, the iPad might be better, since it is backlit.

Another thing to consider is how much you plan to use the device for reading books versus magazines or newspapers. In general, analyst Rubin said the Kindle is geared more toward the avid book reader. It's lighter and smaller than the iPad, and because the screen is not reflective and more gentle on the eyes, it's better for reading longer forms of text, such as books. That said, magazines, in particular, look really fantastic on the iPad.

And finally, you should consider price. The Kindle is so inexpensive now, it's almost hard to resist. In fact, I might even get one. (I am definitely not an early adopter. I prefer to buy a second- or third-generation products, when the kinks have been worked out, and the price is more attractive.)

The new Kindle 3 is only $189 with 3G service and $139 with Wi-Fi connectivity. By contrast, the Wi-Fi-only 16GB iPad is $500. The 3G version of the same device is $629, on Apple's Web site. Not only is the 3G version considerably more expensive than the Wi-Fi version, but if you want wireless connectivity everywhere (not just in Wi-Fi hotspots), you have to sign up for a monthly data service from AT&T, which is $25 a month for 2GB and $15 for 200MB of data. Considering that it's easy to blow through 200MB of data in a month, it's much more likely that most people will get the $25 service.

For the Kindle, the 3G service is bundled into the $189 cost of the device for the lifetime of the product. This means that consumers can get access to the Internet anywhere to download books without being in a Wi-Fi hotspot.

If you really feel like you can't decide, Rubin suggests getting both. That's what he has done. One of the great things about the Kindle is that it allows you to read books from Apple's iBooks, and books bought from the Kindle from Amazon can also be used on devices such as the iPad. So in short, if you have lots of money to spend, maybe consider both. If you're cheap like me, I'd say go for the Kindle, and you can always get an iPad later, and you won't risk losing all the books you've downloaded for the Kindle.

Correction and clarification 8/30/10 11:50 a.m: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Kindle's 3G service provider. AT&T offers the 3G wireless service on new Kindles. This story was also altered to clarify that Apple iPad customers do not have to sign up for 3G service nor are they required to sign a lengthy contract.