AT&T Bait-and-Switch Sim Card Swap Mischief

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The title is the best way I can describe our most recent experience with the former monopolist trying to return to their anticompetitive ways: AT&T bait-and-switch sim card swap mischief.  To summarize, after accidentally canceling our prepaid month-to-month data plan on an iPad, AT&T could not (would not?) restore it.  Instead we were “offered” a prepaid plan that (a) had a higher total cost, (b) had less flexibility, and (c) will be billed to us like any other AT&T bill instead of automatically being charged to a credit card.  Repeated attempts to decline this offer and get the credit card plan were met with what can best be described as deceptive sales/support practices.  We will be approaching the California Public Utilities Commission with our complaint.


On Sunday, August 24 our AT&T uVerse DSL service stopped working.  The red light on the AT&T router said something was wrong. My lovely wife was facing an August 26 deadline for a major project.  We needed connectivity.  First frustration: AT&T said the earliest they could get a technician to us was Tuesday morning (August 26).  Despite repeated requests and several telephone calls, that was the best they could do.

I began searching for alternative modes of internet connection.  One immediately came to mind: my wife’s iPad 3 included an option to serve as a wifi hotspot via its 4G AT&T connection.  Easy, right?  I launched the AT&T cellular data connection applet on the iPad, changed the plan to 5 gb per month for $50 including a wifi hotspot and waited.  And nothing happened.  I tried again (most likely spending another $50).  Then I discovered from the applet response (and some additional digging) that the new plan would not take effect until our current plan rolled over on September 26.  That would not work, so when the applet gave me the option of canceling the current cellular plan, I figured I’d do that, write off the $130 I was down so far, and start over.  Actually I was hoping that I had only canceled the $30 part of the plan, with the wifi hotspot plan kicking in immediately.  I should have known better.

Hitting the cancel button was a very, very, very bad move.  When I tried to set up a new cellular service I saw this:

iPad Error Message From AT&T

iPad Error Message From AT&T

And, no matter what I tried, I got the same message. I lost count of the number of times I saw the above error message as I tried to cancel the cancellation or get new service.  And that’s not even counting my wife’s failed attempts.

At this point I called AT&T’s customer service number.  The rep stated that the problem was most likely caused by our wifi being down.  (Our uVerse “service” had failed earlier that day.)  He suggested a trip to Starbucks so we could use their wifi.  We trundled to the nearest Starbucks, bought a cup of tea, and sat down to see if we could make it work.  After a frustrating 45 minutes, we concluded that our lack of wifi was not the problem.  We packed up and went home.

The Next Day

My lovely wife departed for the AT&T store the next morning (August 27).  They tried setting up prepaid credit card cellular service on the iPad (same result), setting it up through their website (same result) and swapping the sim card (same result yet again).  At that point, the AT&T people suggested she try switching to a different prepaid cellular data plan that would let AT&T bill her directly instead of automatic prepaid credit card renewal each month.  She declined that offer.  They then suggested it was Apple’s problem.  So my wife trundled off to the Apple store.  After spending about an hour at the Genius Bar with no success, someone on the phones at AT&T told the genius working with my wife that, “AT&T’s iPad provisioning servers are down.”  At this point the genius had been passed to five different AT&T representatives.

“Oh,” I thought. “That’s good news because I might be able to fix the problem on Tuesday.”  Wrong.  The problem remained intractable through Tuesday.  Wednesday August 28 I called AT&T tech support.  After talking me through setting up cellular service on the iPad (same result) and setting it up through their website (same result), the technician suggested changing the sim card.  Sigh.

We were pretty busy for the rest of the week, although I did try sporadically to set up the service.  During that time I occasionally encouraged my wife to consider taking the iPad to the Apple store and swapping it for another iPad 3 that used Verizon instead of AT&T. Stay tuned for the real story.

Cellular Works Again, But We Are Not Happy

Yesterday (September 5), my wife left the house about 2 pm to go to the AT&T store.  Once again they changed the sim card and, once again, it did not work.  At which point the AT&T people once again offered the direct billing option.  Here are the details: the new contract offers the same monthly prices available before: 250mb per month ($14.99), 3gb ($30) or a 5gb wifi hotspot plan ($50).  But! There is a $36 “setup fee.”  There is a $5 per month service charge for any month during which no cellular data is used.  The account must be managed through a website or by phone instead of the iPad’s built-in cellular data app.  There is no feedback about how close you are to the monthly quota. Here’s what you see if you try to access your cellular data plan from the iPad:

AT&T error message after switching to new plan

AT&T error message after switching to new plan

My wife, for better or worse, accepted this offer.  Guess what happened next?  The AT&T people replaced the sim card and this one worked‼! Of course it only works with the new AT&T billing cellular data plan.


If you have the iPad Apple AT&T credit card cellular plan that came with the device, never, ever, ever cancel it‼ You will not be able to get it back.  This is clearly AT&T’s policy — my wife dealt with three different people at the AT&T store, each of whom did the same things.  AT&T clearly has a stock of brain-dead sim cards that will not provision a prepaid credit card plan on a previously-owned iPad. (I don’t know what plans are available if you buy the iPad at an AT&T store, but, frankly, I would not trust them to even tell me the truth about what is available.)  They use those defective sim cards to induce customers to switch to their new, worse data plan.  The statement AT&T made that their iPad provisioning servers were down was an outright lie.

Right now, we have AT&T uVerse internet and landline “service.”  We have two iPads, each of which has an AT&T cellular data plan.  We spend well over $100 per month with AT&T.  And, over the next six months, we will reduce that amount to as close to zero as we can manage.  (Don’t get me started on uVerse internet and the problems we’ve had there.)

About Tony Lima

Tony Lima has been working with technology, economic modeling, forecasting, and market research for 40 years. His background makes him uniquely qualified to navigate this varied landscape. Begin with his education: B.S. in chemical engineering from M.I.T. , M.B.A. from Harvard, Ph.D. in economics from Stanford. His day job was professor of economics at California State University, East Bay. He retired in 2016 to devote his time to consulting and writing. But he has found time to: write (eight books and over 100 articles ranging from wine economics to detailed analyses of meta-language code generators) consult with companies ranging from Microsoft to CEDEX keep his expertise up-to-date, constantly reading and sorting through the avalanche of information available daily maintain three blogs: Wine Research, Wine Economics, and Economic Policy Local policy analysis: Los Altos

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