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AT&T Wireless users balk at ‘compulsory downgrade’

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AT&T Wireless has drawn the ire of some smart phone customers who have been offered an inferior replacements as the network upgrades.

As the final chapter of its upgrade from TDMA, AT&T is adding some prime 800MHz spectrum alongside its 1900MHz GSM. This spectrum was previously used for TDMA. But only a handful of the most GSM recent handsets support the new band. The company has bungled the upgrade - more through misleading presentation than outright deceit - by offering downgraded handsets to some subscribers in California and the Northeast, among other regions

Users of the most popular smart phone, the Nokia 3650, are particuarly miffed. Last week they were offered an upgrade to Nokia's 3100, 3200, or the Siemens C56. The Series 60 Symbian phone these subscribers already have is much more capable than the Series 40 replacements (boasting removable media and hundreds of web applications including full web access through the Opera browser, for example), so Palm's Treo 600 would have been a more appropriate suggestion. Alas, that's "out of stock" according to AT&T Wireless's Web site.) And subscribers with a Sony Ericsson T68i - the first mass-market phone with Bluetooth - have been offered a replacement with, er - no Bluetooth.

Some bad luck has hampered AT&T, too. Nokia has a raft of compatible phones, but the raft hasn't reached the shore yet. Availability of the 800MHz-capable version of the 3650, the 3620 (which is as much a like-for-like trade-in as you can get) was announced in January. But try finding one. The 3650's more-than-adequate replacement is the 6600, but the 800MHz-capable model, the 6610, is due to ship in volume - next month.

Customer panic is exaggerated. The 1900MHz band will not be abandoned anytime soon. But subscribers won't be able to take advantage of the lower frequency band, with its superior indoor reception, unless they have a compatible handset.

So should AT&T Wireless make good? Smart phone users are a small segment of the subscriber base, but they are one of the most lucrative in terms of ARPU (average revenue per subscriber). They trial new data services early and spread the word more effectively than expensive advertising. Carriers should treat them with some tender loving care. ®

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