Alaska Communications Systems

Posted by Arlo on Dec 21, 2006 under Life of Arlo

When I originally wrote this, I was just venting.  Something actually came of it.  Be sure to read the follow-up!

Hypothetical Google ResultsACS is pissing me off.

Hey, that’s a good opening line, isn’t it?  Probably got you interested.  That’s great, but honestly I wrote it in the hope I’d eventually see a change in Google’s search results.

My wife and I have been loyal ACS customers for over five years.  Of the local carriers in Juneau, they have the best wireless cellphone service, at least in terms of coverage.  Oh, sure, we’ve had our gripes.  ACS’s plans are more expensive and their cellphone selection is rather poor.  But what good are extra Cellular One or Alaska Digitel minutes if you’ve got no bars?  Besides, my wife and I comfortably share 330 minutes and we don’t use our phones as cameras. 

So what’s the big deal?  It’s their “Retail Services” department.

A few months ago, we received a letter in the mail stating that ACS was upgrading their cellular network from TDMA to CDMA.  The reasons for the network switch weren’t exactly clear.  Except for the FCC-mandated “emergency safetly feature” (i.e., 911), we could expect “crystal-clear voice quality, the fewest dropped calls, advanced wireless features, higher security, and much more!”  I could break those down into bullet points and explain why each of them say nothing, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.  They were willing to offer us a new phone; well, they’d have to since our old phones wouldn’t work on their new network.  The letter told us we could stop by our local ACS office and pick up one of three, free* CDMA models:  “An Audiovox 8615, Koycera SE 44, or the new Motorola RAZR V3c.”  After checking them out online, it appeared that this new network could finally allow us to do some web browsing, picture sending, and other stuff that Alaska’s backwater service hasn’t offered yet.  Cool.

Oksana and I set aside a lunch break for ACS.  Most of our hour was spent waiting, the rest becoming confused.  ACS used the network switch as an opportunity change their plans.  Their brochure was complex, containing (by my count): 15 Plans, 11 Add-ons, and 11 Exceptions.  By the time we were able to talk with a representative, our lunch break was almost up.  We asked a few questions about the phones and the data/photo add-on plans and left with their literature to decipher at home. 

It took awhile, but eventually we decided to get RAZR phones, a 300 minute family plan, and “Picture Pack” add-ons.  It would cost us more than we were already paying, but at least we’d have a camera and web access to play with.

The next time we went in, we expected to leave with new phones.  Instead, we learned what “free* Motorola RAZR phones” for each of us meant.  It means $718.  Right, so I admit that I missed the “other terms and conditions apply” in the fine print, but after rereading the letter, I say it’s suspiciously close to a bait-and-switch.  “Come on in, get your FREE PHONE!”  “Oh, by the way, you’ll have to pay for a more expensive plan, and if you’d rather not buy your phone for $359, you’ll have to lock into a 3-year contract AND commit to ACS telephone service for your land line.”  Free, indeed.

To top it all off, two ACS’s customer service representatives said that the RAZR was a piece of crap and if it broke they would not fix it nor offer us a replacement.

That time we left with Customer Complaint forms instead of new phones.

Since then, I’ve been too lazy to complain (or write my thoughts here), but last week ACS sent us another letter.  It began, “Thank you for your loyalty to ACS.”  Yeah.  It continues with much the same wording as the original letter, but with a few notable changes.  For instance, after the same nebulous “features,” they now tell us that they “have several new calling plans available that may save you money.” [ Emphasis theirs — I love how they didn’t bold the word “may!” ]  We were also informed that this “great deal” will only be available through December 31st.

So, what, after that I’ll have to pay for my free phone?

Look, I understand that they can’t give phones away for free; they buy them from the manufacturer, after all.  But two things really piss me off:

1)  ACS’s deceptive bait-and-switch tactics to get me to come in.  Just tell me what it’s going to cost, show me the plans, and let me decide.  If I’m going to have to shell out more bucks to upgrade, fine.  Don’t hide information from me with a little asterisk and some fine print.  It’s just going to make me angry if I miss it.

2)  ACS wants to lock us into a 2- or 3-year contract… again.  My wife and I have been with them for five years!  Do they expect us to jump ship now?  They must, or they wouldn’t be rewarding our loyalty with another dotted line.  What message does this send?  It makes me worry about this new CDMA “upgrade.”  Is it going to be a bumpy transition?  Maybe one of their competitors is now offering better service, more features, or cheaper plans…

Between now and the end of the month, Oksana and I will be researching other plans.  We’ve learned that Verizon piggybacks on ACS’s network; perhaps we can keep our current phone numbers with a Seattle-based plan.  I’ll bet the big-city competition makes even the nation-wide plans cheaper than what we’re paying.

The irony, though, is that we’ll probably end up sticking with ACS if only because it’s the path of least resistance.  But I won’t feel so bad knowing that this entry is out there on the web, warning others away.  Maybe someone will send the ACS Retail Services department a memo reminding them of that old marketing adage:  It costs less to retain a customer than it does to acquire a new one.

When I originally wrote this, I was just venting.  Something actually came of it.  Be sure to read the follow-up!