I received this memo last Wednesday morning and began a marathon research to understand what had happened and what could be resolved. After calling AT&T early Wednesday and after being passed around to various parties and finally ending up with a special “off-usage” customer service agent, it was expressed (emphatically) that we have 60 days to find another carrier because they were going to “shut-off” the roaming to our phones. After that there would be another 30 day time period where voice roaming would also be shut off. Since we don’t live or office on an AT&T “home” network, all our cell phones had effectively just became useless.
This whole affair came to light not by a communication from AT&T, but by our action to move up to a new “droid” 3g style smart phone. The letter above arrived in less than 2 weeks of activation– the phone had already used 5 times more bandwidth than we normally used. Most of that data was background material that was being sent out without our involvement. It seems 3g likes to talk to somebody all the time, even when we didn’t actuate it. Be that as it may, bottom line after trying to plead, pay more, etc – we were told the phones would be cut off and we are on a time line – (sorry about all the decades you have been with us – that’s life.)
I began the background research in all this and also made some calls to our friends in the area. It appears we are not the only ones going through this “squeeze” – it appears ALL the major carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobil, and Sprint) are going to the balance sheet and rolling out the costs. In order to get out of their contracts, they are pulling out every weasel clause they had put in their fine print of the TOS. Again there is nothing in writing but reading the various statements by the AT&T president about how they underestimated the 3g iPhone response had impacted their networks, the charges (reported $1.0 billion for the 1st quarter) for obamacare and the general commerce turn down of 2009 – it appears they have turned the accountants loose to squeeze the balance sheet. While doing this review I noted that AT&T and Verizon were not only picking on their civilian customers, the various business articles were resplendent in details about throwing T-Mobil and Sprint, separately or jointly, under the “roaming” bus.
I made a trip down to the local AT&T store (50 miles away) where I learned that yes it was true for the Piceance Basin and the various cities located therein where AT&T roam is being shut off. They reported this began in earnest some two months ago. Again this was all verbal; their boss heard it from the regional boss, etc – (gotta’ keep those class action suits under control.) The first ones affected appear to be the oil field workers that commuted and did business in the Basin each day (last estimate would be about 2,000+ folks). Next on the hit parade were the communities themselves. There are some reports around that some of the locals experienced this bounce as early as last October. Best guess would be that some 5,000 people (maybe much more, some families own more than 1 cell/family) could be affected in all this and most of the NW quadrant of Colorado. I didn’t check down south of I-70 to see if the entire Western Slope is going to be cut off, but since 3g from AT&T is only in the corridor from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, I’m guessing they are in for it also. In a response, I’ve heard that Halliburton has already rolled off AT&T here and the other companies and utilities are aware of the issues and they are exploring their options.
So the question became, where do you start the search to find a local regional carrier out of the some 180 carriers in the US? This was very reminiscent of the first time I had to do this when cell phones first came out in the 90’s. I had really thought we were beyond this at this point. I localized this research to the available towers in the Meeker area. From the city-data website, http://www.city-data.com/towers/cell-Meeker-Colorado.html, I was able to begin to unravel this puzzle. I found that the main tower I had been using was a “wholesaler” from Atlanta and wouldn’t be of any use. The other cell towers belonged to or are being leased by a company out of Utah and another out of Wyoming.
After many hours reliving the technology advances in the last 10 years, it all boiled back down to the base technologies from the 90’s. As a review, these webpages; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_mobile_phone_standards &
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectral_efficiency_comparison_table#Comparison_table will give a fast update of the technologies. There is a blizzard of technical data available. But, it’s really two camps as it was back in the day – GSM or CDMA. GSM is the “protocol” that ATT & T-Mobile and essentially the rest of the world have followed. CDMA is essentially the American technology path that Verizon and Sprint have chosen. Most of the build out we experience these days were actually rolled out more than 8 years ago –CDMA+EVDO & GSM+EDGE.
As for the Meeker area, and for that matter all the Northern Piceance Basin (AT&T cell coverage ends at the bowling alley, 3 miles north of the Rifle town center), there are just two choices for regional providers. For GSM, it’s the Wyoming Union Wireless – For CDMA it’s the Utah Strata Networks, both companies are actively pushing their networks in here. In some cases they are sharing towers to get their various technologies into the region. Strata is running CDMA-EVDO which is a spread frequency technology that is known for its clarity of the voice signal. Union is running GSM+EDGE whose foundation is the old stable TDMA laid over by GSM.
In general the pros and cons of company selection will be ease of use and range of signal. You can see a list of technical advantages and disadvantages on the following:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_mobile_phone_standards. Note the hilly terrain characteristics.
Still, the selection of a single company for all the solutions maybe difficult. I know that many of the service/utility trucks in this area carry both a GSM & CDMA cell phones and if necessary FM radios – if they need to be more remote. For those that office and home here, the selection will be made based on use and possible past experience with the individual technology. Customer service will be vital. For most of us, who travel this region frequently, roaming becomes a critical issue again. Union has roaming contracts with AT&T (but not 3g for iPhone users), Strata with Verizon. Strata’s TOS limits roaming to 30% of total usage. Is that a hard barrier? It appears to be since our friends are charged roaming just stepping into Rifle but it’s still an unknown as there has been no conversation on that point and roaming information is not in their brochures that I have found. Union’s roaming cutoff parameters are not viewable on the available website contract; however it is estimated to be set at 40%. From personal conversations with the Union people, if the individual roaming plan is selected high enough, this 40% barrier becomes a soft barrier. When a Union Phone hits Rifle it immediately switches to AT&T under its roam.
For some of us that travel internationally, the GSM factor will be the decider. CDMA can not go international right now, even though there is discussion about a future blending of protocols to permit this – its just not available today.
To shift from Verizon may be tricky. Since a CDMA phone can not swap providers, your beautiful phone you have come to love is a throw away. You must get a new phone that is programmed to Strata. With Union, you obtain the unlock codes for your SIM from AT&T (my customer service lady said they would help do this and port the number over to the new provider) and just put the new Union SIM chip into your favorite phone.
Union is a very old family run telephone business in Wyoming. Strata Networks is fairly new, constituted from Ubet.
Both Strata and Union are building out here in the Meeker area and the Northern Piceance Basin; in some cases, they are sharing towers. The glittering generality is that Strata is mainly east-west from Meeker to the Uintah Basin initially cover the Northern Piceance Basin. Union is strong in southern Wyoming and pushing their network south to cover this region. Union is in conversation with Strata about hanging cells on some of their towers along Hwy 64 and to position several towers down in the Piceance itself. Both companies are eying Grand Junction as a place to add service.
Union has done very well in building along the Hwy 13 corridor from Rifle to Craig. Strata’s coverage is limited to a 5 mile stretch on the Rio Blanco and to the edge of 9 mile pass north of Meeker. Strata has built along Hwy 64 from Meeker to Rangely. Both systems are excellent in the Meeker town area and on the “Mesa,” east of town.
Union has developed a backhaul system utilizing microwave (long line of sight) and in the Meeker area dropping into 6-T1 lines. This gives the local system about 9.2 mega bits/sec of performance (1.2 MB/S). The Strata back haul plan is unknown. Union has mentioned that it would like to go full 3g here in this area with UMTS (7.2 mega bits/sec), but that would take a financial commitment from them and they are waiting to see their customer base gain size and stabilize here.
Phone:1- 888 -926-2273
Meeker Office: 970-878-0477