T-Mobile: 'No hotspot? Sorry, no refund either'

Summary:Last Friday, the morning after Mashup Camp ended, I made it to my flight's gate at the San Francisco airport with about 30 minutes to spare.  Knowing that T-Mobile operates an airport-wide hotspot, I figured that 30 minutes was just enough time to log into the hotspot, do a couple critical emails, and post my podcast interview of Eventful.

Last Friday, the morning after Mashup Camp ended, I made it to my flight's gate at the San Francisco airport with about 30 minutes to spare.  Knowing that T-Mobile operates an airport-wide hotspot, I figured that 30 minutes was just enough time to log into the hotspot, do a couple critical emails, and post my podcast interview of Eventful.com's Chris Radcliff.  I took at seat in the airport lounge by the gate, popped open my notebook, enabled my WiFi adapter and saw that the signal strength for T-Mobile's hotspot was "Excellent" (according to Windows).  It was clear from his tone that not reading the terms & conditions was an oversight on my part. Good I thought.  I fired up the browser and the first place it took me to was T-Mobile's Web site where it showed me a bunch of options, one of which was perfect for me (the one where you pay $6.99 per hour).  But I couldn't find a way to use it so I clicked through the day pass option for $9.99 instead.  But the minute I supplied all of my personal information including a confirmation of the payment by credit card, the WiFi signal mysteriously dropped to almost nil and I was unable to get a reliable connection.  It flittered in and out, but not for long enough to load a Web page or log on to the company network. 

I tried every trick I knew (and I have a lot of tricks having been down this path before with other hotspots) to no avail.  Suddenly, it was time to board.  I got on the plane and even tried to get at T-Mobile's hotspot while I was in my seat (wouldn't that be great?... to keep computing online until the flight attendants tell you to shut down?).  But that didn't work and I gave in, resolving to call T-Mobile at the beginning of this week to get my money back.  After all, if I gave them my money but could not achieve a connection, surely their network management consoles must show that I used all of about 100 bytes and that they should give me my money back.  Today, I made that call and recorded the whole thing. I was very clear with the T-Mobile rep -- a guy named Rudy -- that I was recording the call.  Given the recent spate of some very public customer service snafus, I figured it was time to fall in-line and keep a podcast record of my support calls in case something goes awry.  You can download my recording of the entire call (it's about 13 minutes long) or, if you're already subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts, it should automatically show up on your PC and MP3 player. 

Although Rudy eventually relented with a consolation prize, he refused to issue me a refund saying on several occasions that, according to T-Mobile's Terms and Conditions, I was not entitled to one.  It was clear from his tone that not reading the terms & conditions was an oversight on my behalf.  Go check it out.  Had I read that, by the time I got to the end, my plane would have been half way to Boston. I skimmed through it today and I'm not sure I see anywhere where it says something like "once you give us your money, it's tough nuggies on you if our signal drops out and you get no work done." 

At approximately 1:40 into the call, Rudy tries to tell me that if signal goes out, that it doesn't mean it's T-Mobile's fault and that if such an outage occurs that T-Mobile usually notifies everyone. By everyone, I'm assuming T-Mobile's hotspot users.  However, I'm not sure how they do that if there's a network outage.  Perhaps its through some form of wireless broadband telepathy. 

When I stopped Rudy to say that the network signal strength was very strong and that it wasn't until I gave my credit card that the signal just dropped out on me, he told me how the "signal is there" (Rudy is apparently omnipresent) and then ran through a list of security solutions -- high security settings, proxies, Norton Security, McAfee, and firewalls like ZoneAlarm and BlackICE -- that would prevent the T-Mobile connection from working. This of course did not explain why the connection worked fine until after T-Mobile took my $9.99 for a day pass.  When I told him that none of those software solutions were my problem, at approximately 2:30 into the call, he says "David.. you're not listening to me. I do this for a living every day.  Those are things that could be causing your problem. Now, if you didn't call us on the day of service to help you and assist you with this problem, then the terms and conditions have been voided."  It was at that moment that any chances of me ever being a T-Mobile customer again were voided too.

Rudy explained that I should have called the 800 number immediately to try to resolve the problem.  Interesting suggestion. If only I could connect to the network to get the 800 number.  Or, am I supposed to commit that to memory? 

At 6:15 into the call, you can hear me asking for my money back and Rudy insisted on running through the terms and conditions, calling out the part that says "amounts paid for day passes are non-refundable."  Seems like a lopsided business term.  To bad I didn't have my lawyer on hand to review the terms and warn me that if the network doesn't work, the no refund clause still applies. Whatever happened to just taking care of the customer.  Does T-Mobile really need my ten bucks that badly?

At 8:13 into the call, Rudy tells me they have T-1's all over the airport as if that has something to do with the strength of the wireless signal.  Thanks Rudy.  Next time, I'll get a T1 adapter for my notebook.  Perhaps T-Mobile's site has a map of all the T1 taps at the airport. 

At 8:22, he starts again into the explanations of how personal firewalls and other such security solutions could be responsible for loss of the signal and he reminds me of how he "deals with this everyday."  He's obviously an expert.  As if any of this makes any difference.   I paid $10.  I got nothing for it.  Now give me my money back.

By the end of the call, I think I wore Rudy down.  He agreed to give me another one day pass that I can use at a later date.  It's not what I wanted.  But maybe I'll get to use it at a Starbucks or something.  Rudy explained that it's an option he's giving to me that "we normally don't give to anyone."  Until now.  Hopefully.

Update: One day after this blog was published, a person by the name of Cornell Cunningham claiming to be a Senior Manager of Customer Care at T-Mobile contacted me by phone to issue an apology and comment on his thoughts about the call and his expectations of T-Mobile's customer service personnel.  I asked him to send me his response in writing so that I could share it with ZDNet's readers.  When and if that statement arrives (I had no way of verifying the caller's identity), I will publish here on ZDNet. 

Topics: Wi-Fi

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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