Cluing in AT&T to its own rules

A customer who sought to modify an iPhone to work overseas — while also maintaining the phone's domestic plan — was rebuffed by two AT&T agents. In fact, such a plan exists.

Marty Tudor's 19-year-old daughter has just left for a semester of study in the Netherlands, which is very cool.

What's not cool is that AT&T told Tudor it wouldn't unlock her iPhone 5 so she could use it with a local service while abroad, even though he was fully willing to keep making monthly payments on her U.S. plan.

"It's maddening," he told me. "I'm not proposing anything that would reduce their business in any way, shape or form. But they just didn't want to even discuss it."

At first glance, this seems like one of those classic cases in which a customer's needs weren't covered by a business' corporate playbook, so the knee-jerk reaction was to say no.

But AT&T actually does have a plan for students heading abroad, so this is also a classic case of a service rep with no clue about the company he's repping, which is perhaps even worse than just-say-no corporate intransigence.

Unlocking cellphones and tablets became an issue last year after the Library of Congress, which oversees U.S. copyright law, didn't renew an exemption to the law that permitted the practice.

That doesn't mean it previously was a simple matter to unlock a cellphone. All the exemption did was say it wasn't against the law for wireless customers to unlock devices without their carrier's permission.

Unless you knew how to hack a handset, you still needed the company's say-so.

Federal regulators and wireless companies reached a deal last month to allow devices to be unlocked legally and work on other networks — but only after a customer's contract is completed.

This is important to service providers, which subsidize steep discounts on cellphones in return for locking people into two-year contracts. That's how a $600 iPhone can be obtained for as little as $100 upfront.

Tudor, a West Los Angeles talent manager, wasn't trying to weasel out of his daughter's contract. She's on a family plan, and that won't change when she returns from the land of wooden shoes and windmills.

"I just wanted her to be able to use her iPhone over there for calls and texting and the other things that she uses it for," Tudor said.

He said he explained this to an AT&T service rep, but was told unlocking a still-under-contract iPhone was a nonstarter — even if Tudor continued making regular payments.

Tudor asked to speak with a supervisor, but was told this wouldn't help anything. So he came to me.

Alex Carey, an AT&T spokesman, said that "each situation is different in terms of how we accommodate each customer as best we can," all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.

He said the phone company has a program called Study Abroad that allows students to use their wireless devices overseas without incurring onerous roaming charges, though there's an extra monthly charge depending on service level.

Tudor told me the service rep never mentioned such a program. AT&T's Carey was unable to explain this omission. But he said someone else from the company would contact Tudor to try and straighten things out.

The second rep also failed to mention the Study Abroad plan, Tudor said. But she informed him that his daughter's phone could be unlocked by paying a $165 early-termination fee. Tudor, who wanted to keep his daughter on her current contract, said thanks but no thanks.

Then, as if the idea had just occurred to her, the rep offered to unlock the phone free of charge "on a one-time-only basis," which was a nice gesture but a little strange considering that she'd just a moment earlier tried to shake down Tudor for $165.

He's now trying to see whether his daughter can unlock her iPhone from Holland. Just in case, he's already bought her a cheapo European phone to use there.

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