Cell phone provider switch has users calling deal off

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004

A number of wireless phone customers in the Kenai area whose service provider was switched from AT&T to Cellular One in November, have been receiving unusually high bills, some as much as triple the previous rate, but the company is making things good.

One former AT&T customer said his bill nearly tripled since the switch.

"With AT&T, my bill was $119 a month for 1,000 minutes," said Tom Thibodeau of Kenai. "I got my December bill and it was $198.98. It had long-distance charges on it that I never had with AT&T.

"The bill this month was $263," he said.

"According to the bill, it said all my calls were made from outside my local area, which is Anchorage. I don't live in Anchorage. I live in (Kalifornsky) Beach," Thibodeau said.

Another Kenai man, Dan McKiernan, said he's had enough and he's quitting Cellular One.

"They charge for extra things and then take them off when you call," McKiernan said.

"On my last bill, they charged for weekends an extra $25. When I called and said I have the All-America plan or whatever, they took it off. They said it was a mistake," he said.

Cellular One's Clear Across America network calling plan allows customers with that service to complete calls without roaming or long-distance charges within the nationwide network.

On his next bill, McKiernan said charges appeared for the 12th and 13th of the preceding month, but his billing cycle is supposed to be from the 14th to the 14th.

"When I called and protested, they said maybe I didn't pay AT&T.

"I told them to call AT&T.

"They took it off.

"I've just had enough. I'm going to quit. I really don't need a cell phone anyway," McKiernan said.

Cellular One, which has been providing wireless service to Fairbanks and Juneau for three years, took over AT&T's accounts in Southcentral Alaska on Nov. 14, switching customers to Cellular One service automatically.

"We worked very hard to make it as seamless as possible," said Craig Davis, public relations manager for Cellular One, which is based in Duluth, Minn.

He said the few problems he has been made aware of are primarily billing problems.

"We ask that anyone who has a problem with their bill get in touch with us right away," Davis said.

He said customers may call the company phone number printed on their billing statement, or call toll free (800) 423-5514.

According to Davis, the AT&T agreements people had in effect at the time of the switch, were grandfathered in and remain in effect with Cellular One.

"People need to get in touch with us.

"We're committed to improving the service for all people in Alaska," he said.

"The first thing you get is the AK 47 message saying they could not send you through right now," said Thibodeau, about attempts to contact Cellular One.

After repeatedly trying, though, he said he finally got through to a customer service representative who corrected his billing problem.

"I got my $263 bill chopped down to $77," Thibodeau said.

"I have a better deal than I had with AT&T."

An assistant manager of the Radio Shack store in Kenai, an authorized sales center for Cellular One, said the store has received some complaints from people since accounts were switched from AT&T.

"We've had a few complaints, most about billing or not being able to get through," said Lars Winston.

"But I've had Cellular One for years and I've never had a problem. We also have people who just love them. They swear by them," Winston said.

As an authorized sales center, Radio Shack sells Cellular One phones, performs monthly service activation for customers, handles prepaid activation and sells prepaid minutes, Winston said.

"We have daily contact with Cellular One, and I never have a problem getting through," he said.

A call to Cellular One's customer service number was met with a message saying, "Due to an unusually high call volume, the average hold time is 25 minutes."

A customer service representative, however, answered within a minute.

The representative explained that for Kenai Peninsula customers, the area Cellular One considers to be their local calling area extends from Wasilla and Palmer, through Anchorage, down to Seward and Homer.

Calls made within that area are not assessed roaming charges. Calls made to Juneau or Fairbanks bring a roaming charge of 39 cents per minute.

Although the representative said AT&T sent letters to all its customers being affected before the switch took place, Thibodeau said all he recalled receiving was an ad from Cellular One nothing from AT&T.

"We did a customer communication last fall from Cellular One," Davis said.

He said that although service agreements remained the same, some services might have been provided through different vendors used by the two companies, such as the vendor who provides handset insurance to customers. The rate plans remained unchanged. Since taking over the AT&T accounts in Southcentral Alaska, Cellular One has 150,000 customers statewide.

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