Myth-busted, or, Would AT&T have forgiven Savage's bill if he wasn't a TV star?

You've got to feel some serious empathy for Adam Savage.

The co-star of the popular Discovery Channel television show Mythbusters found himself on the receiving end of a huge bill after a recent vacation to Montreal, Canada. He had tethered a cellular modem to his laptop, and ended up racking up $11,000 in charges before returning to the US. Upon his return, AT&T, claiming he had used over 9 gigabytes of data during his foreign surfing adventure, helpfully shut his account down. Only when he called them to complain about the outage did he learn he had been hosed.

(Disclosure: I was born and raised in Montreal. Although I moved away quite some time ago, it bothers me to see visitors to my fair city have anything remotely approaching a negative experience. I can accept a sub-par smoked meat sandwich or poutine. But being charged the equivalent of a base model Hyundai for the privilege of checking e-mail and surfing the Web for a few hours is ludicrous. I know it's an American carrier, but even the most tenuous connection to my beloved hometown bugs me. End rant.)


The benefits of fame

True to his geek's soul, Savage subsequently used his Twitter following (64,270 as I write this) to pressure AT&T into excusing the bill. He posted this plaintive tweet: "Text messaging fees are stupid robbery? (they are), AT&T is attempting to charge me 11k for a few hours of web surfing in Canada. Pls RT!" The subsequent re-tweet storm prompted AT&T to call him the same day and resolve the issue. In the end, AT&T did the right thing and waived all charges.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)As encouraged as I am to see a quick resolution to this obviously ridiculous example of antagonistic customer "service", I'm reminded that AT&T's rapid and complete response has little to do with its efficient customer service capability [cough] and everything to do with Mr. Savage's wide-ranging, tech savvy celebrity.

Not all of us star in popular television programs, nor do we have tens of thousands of Twitter followers or Facebook friends. At one point, Savage tweeted a very telling exchange:

AT&T guy on the phone with me: "Apparently you've got enough Twitter followers to get our attention."
Me: "50,000".
Him: "Wow".

Good for Savage. Not so good for the rest of us. When you're an average, mostly anonymous, wage-earning, bill-paying shlub who's received a similar surprise, chances are your carrier won't be calling you in response to a broad-based outpouring of re-tweeted support. Instead, you'll be calling a toll-free number and waiting for hours to speak to a clueless agent in India, just like the rest of us average shlubs. You'll be lucky to have service restored within days, if at all.

Fighting back

All of which begs the question: How can consumers protect themselves from carriers who willingly bury terms of service deep in fine print so thick with legalese that even experienced lawyers have difficulty figuring it out? There's no perfect solution, of course, but I've evolved a few simple assumptions that have kept me from facing four- and five-digit bills upon my return.

Assume you'll get fleeced when you're roaming. Savage's experience with AT&T is typical. If you're out of the country and using a partner carrier's network, it will charge you 15 cents per kilobyte. In a world where the average Web page can range between 10 and 100K, simply looking up the weather, checking your e-mail and updating your Facebook status can easily cost you more than breakfast at a family restaurant. Stream some Internet radio and YouTube video and you've just paid for steak dinner at a high end restaurant. Or that Hyundai.

Assume your carrier won't make it easy to track usage. Would you drive a car without a functioning gas gauge? Of course not. But every day, we go online without understanding how much data we're consuming and how much it costs us. It may not matter so much when we're at home, because most broadband Internet services have sufficiently generous caps to accommodate all but the most voracious file downloaders. But mobile users already know to limit high-bandwidth usage lest they blow through their often paltry monthly data limits. Carriers will claim to helpfully provide online tools that facilitate tracking, but finding them is often an adventure in itself. Carriers make more money by keeping customers in the dark and hoping not all of them will contest overage charges.

Assume your carrier can't count. Even if online usage tracking tools are easily available, don't be misled into believing that they're remotely accurate. In Savage's case, he says he spent two or three hours engaged in basic Web surfing. He wasn't streaming audio or video, making video calls or otherwise engaged in any high-bandwidth activity. Yet AT&T's systems dinged him for 9 Gb of usage. If you think you've been wronged, who are you gonna call?

Savage planning

Whenever I travel internationally, I do two things before I get anywhere close to a border: I turn off data service on my BlackBerry, and I plan my trip around free Wi-Fi wherever possible. I've spent countless hours exhaustively reviewing my own carrier's terms of service, and the only conclusion I can draw is I'd be asking for a Hyundai-equivalent bill if I dared use a partner-carrier's cell-based network for data coverage.

The cynic in me knows full well why this is the case. The majority of customers, lacking the time, resources and will to pursue cases like this, choose to accept excessive international roaming charges. In most cases, the bills aren't anywhere near $11,000. If it's an extra $50 or so, the silent majority will likely assume it's normal, and grudgingly pay the premium as the cost of cross-border travel.

But in a world where watching one YouTube video from a foreign land can cost the equivalent of a week's wages, outdated and clearly punitive roaming plans clearly need to go.

And that's no myth.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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