After months of anticipation, the message that you can keep your number when you change phone companies came in loud and clear last week—five bars strong, with only a bit of static. Vengeance was in the air: for bad reception, billing problems, the visceral humiliation that the cutest, latest phone wasn’t being offered by your carrier.
Mario Jahorie, robust in his yellow Oxford and Yankees cap, was selling phones—AT&T, Nextel, T-Mobile—in a store on 14th Street off Union Square. He estimated that 70 percent of the crowd who came in Monday managed to switch providers. Some weren’t eligible but tried anyway. “You get disconnected from AT&T for nonpayment, T-Mobile aren’t gonna take you,” Jahorie said. He didn’t pick that theoretical company swap accidentally: AT&T, despite having the best customer service, seemed to be losing more subscribers than the others. “It’s the most trusted phone company in the U.S.,” said Jahorie, “but that’s just from being renowned.” For one thing, AT&T’s new global-calling plan had been down for two weeks. Bad timing. When a kid in an army jacket with a thin hip-hop beard popped in to change his phone, he started looking at the AT&T handsets and Jahorie steered him to T-Mobile, which has cooler models.
Over at Exist Mobile, three blocks up on 17th Street, a salesman was telling a customer, a bearded photographer type in black jeans who’d been on AT&T, that 60 percent of the switches were away from AT&T so far. At an AT&T Wireless store not far away, the staff had been instructed not to talk to the press. But when a woman in sneakers and a puffy tan coat came in to try to talk about her service, the salesman unfurled the price-plan brochures and confided that the phones aren’t exactly designed to last, and that if she can’t get a signal in her parents’ house in Syracuse, it’s because it’s a college town and that’s really more Sprint territory.
The good thing for the cell-phone stores is that they get to sell new handsets with the new plans. The bad thing is that none of them expect the shakedown to end anytime soon. People will switch carriers on a whim—for the latest ring-tone downloads, say. Then there are those who insist they’ve seen someone with a phone that works underground. “People don’t understand how they can see a bum talking into a cell on the subway: ‘How can he have one and not me?’ ” Jahorie says. “It might be he’s crazy and isn’t talking to anybody.”