Porting numbers between T-Mobile and AT&T is a Halloween nightmare

Moving your phone service from one wireless carrier to another shouldn't be a horror show.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Over the last few years, I have been a wireless customer at T-Mobile. There was a lot I liked about the service -- primarily the company's excellent customer support, and the competitive pricing.

But, over the past year, I've been experiencing abysmal wireless coverage in my neighborhood and all over the South Florida area in which I live. Coverage in several other metropolitan areas I frequent, such as Northern California and New York City, has also been spotty. So, while the company was significantly cheaper than its competition, the service degradation was no longer worth it.

The switch was inevitable

I decided, for several reasons, to switch back to AT&T, which I had used previously for about ten years. For one, it is already my broadband service provider with AT&T Fiber. Any VOIP calls I do with my home Wi-Fi hop directly on its network, unlike T-Mobile, which required an ethernet-bridged femtocell in my house to boost LTE signal, because service in my home was nonexistent. I also liked the idea of a consolidated bill for both broadband and wireless, and when 5G does eventually roll out, I know AT&T will be at the forefront with substantial infrastructure investment.

So, I finally decided to pull the plug on T-Mobile. But moving between wireless carriers is not an easy thing to do, especially if you have numbers to port over.

I had a total of seven telephone numbers to move over -- two of which were the iPhones my wife and I both carry, and another two were my parents, whose bills I cover. The other ones are for my Apple Watch, my Google Pixel (my primary Android device), and a line I use for various Android smartphones I test from different manufacturers.

I called AT&T customer service to do the ports and gave them my phone numbers. It was able to do the first five, but not the last two, because of some policy having to do with credit -- although my credit is outstanding. It also ran a credit report on me to authorize billing on the first five lines (despite the fact I was already paying them monthly for broadband, and I had a customer history with them for over a year).

AT&T told me the last two lines could only be activated after the first five were turned on. I'd have to call back in or use the web ordering system to port the last two numbers and have SIM cards issued.

The first four SIM cards came in the mail a few days later, and my Apple Watch line was issued a new phone number because it was the easiest to do that way. 

Watching paint dry

It just so happened that, last week, AT&T decided to overhaul all its internal customer ordering and externally-facing web portals. Virtually every time I tried to do line activations, change any feature, or make profile modifications, its website or its interactive voice response (IVR) system either blew up in my face or was so slow it was utterly unusable. 

Even a week later, the web portal is still not running smoothly. It's like watching paint dry when you try to sign in and navigate the menus.

The first two numbers I attempted to turn on required a customer service representative because its simple IVR system at the port and activations center wasn't working right. Thankfully, the first CSR I dealt with was the Birmingham, Ala., support center, and it was very helpful. I was able to get the job done, and my iPhone and Apple Watch were ready to be turned on immediately. 

I was able to activate my wife's line, and my parents' two numbers I did the following day when the IVR was functioning. Those only took a few minutes each, but the web portal was still an unusable mess for the entire week. Updates to see all the adds and changes took forever.

However, getting the last two lines activated made me want to jump off a bridge.

The painful process continues

Shortly after activating my iPhone and Apple Watch, I called into the customer support center to get two new SIMs and port the remaining two T-Mobile lines because its web portal was busted. The SIM cards arrived two days later.

Thinking the IVR system would be my quickest route, I called into the port and activations line, as I did for my wife and parents' line, but when I attempted to activate each of those numbers, the system told me it didn't have all of my customer information, and it routed me to a specialist.

That specialist was in Manilla, Philippines. I want to say her English was understandable, but it was not. To make matters worse, AT&T's outsourced international call center employees aren't equipped to deal with complex customer problems and are utterly paralyzed when AT&T implements any sort of IT system upgrade. Not only was she not able to activate the lines for the SIMs that I had, but she had to bounce me back to the US. The CSR in the US said it was not its problem but rather the porting line department's issue. 

I spent probably about four hours on the phone with AT&T, in at least four different call centers -- Birmingham, Atlanta, Austin, and Manilla -- attempting to get two lines ported from T-Mobile turned on. Nobody could figure it out. There wasn't enough barrel-strength bourbon in my house to make the entire process less painful.

At this point, about a week into the process, I just wanted those two vestigial phone numbers from T-Mobile to die. And I tried to close my T-Mobile account. But T-Mobile refused to terminate my service because the two lines were in porting limbo. Until AT&T activated them or released them, I was stuck.

Eventually, I got an AT&T CSR in Austin to issue me two completely new lines and ship me out two new SIM cards -- after dinging me with yet another credit check. But he told me to wait a few days on the original two numbers because perhaps the porting system might resolve itself over the weekend. He also instructed me to discard the two new SIMs he just issued me should the ports work.

So, over the weekend, I attempted to activate those two ported lines again.

Yet again, the IVR system for the porting and activation line kicked me over to the Philippines. After about an hour on the phone with those people, who attempted yet again to kick me back to the US, it was finally determined I needed to go into an AT&T store. 

It should have been simple

On Sunday afternoon, after a few brunch cocktails, I trundled into my understaffed, God-awful slow AT&T store in Coral Springs, where I waited about 30 minutes for someone to help me.

It should have been a relatively simple issue to deal with -- turning on two ported phone numbers with pre-issued AT&T SIM cards.

It turns out the reason why the final two lines could not be activated was a credit verification issue -- they needed a human being to verify my identity. But it wasn't good enough that an AT&T store representative was shown my ID in person; they had to get an analyst on the line to interrogate me about where I used to live, where I used to work, and the name of every one of my living relatives.
But the icing on the cake? It turns out the most straightforward way out of this mess was to cancel the ports and send the numbers back to T-Mobile. So, I ended up yet again with two brand new phone numbers issued. The ones from last week, with SIM cards still in the mail? I'm supposed just to let them expire after not activating them. 

Oh, and AT&T reran an Experian check. I think this is probably the fourth time in a week it had to do it. That doesn't make me happy either. I wish I were told to go into a store to deal with this, from day one, instead of wasting hours of my time and having all these credit checks done.

I was finally able to kill my T-Mobile account on Monday morning because it got the numbers back.

Par for the course

If it weren't for AT&T's excellent wireless and fiberoptic network, I would never recommend them because their customer support infrastructure and toolset is horrendous. The CSRs are unable to resolve fundamental issues over the phone and are hindered by poorly-performing IT systems that are always in a state of flux.

I wish I could say I am surprised I encountered these issues, but I understand this is par for the course for AT&T. I wish I never actually needed a telecom-issued phone number -- in my opinion, it's a vestigial organ plagued with robocalls that we would no longer need if we had good VOIP alternatives that were carrier-independent.

Has anyone else been through a wireless network phone porting nightmare like this one? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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