T-Mobile Calling Plans Run Afoul of Washington State's Attorney General

NEWS ANALYSIS: Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson's court-ordered agreement with T-Mobile shows how mobile phone calling plans can get ensnared by politics.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson took T-Mobile to court because he believed the wireless service provider's calling plans that are clearly different from standard practices of the biggest wireless service providers in the United States were somehow "deceptive."

On April 25, Ferguson entered into a court-ordered agreement with T-Mobile that requires the wireless carrier to tell people that they have to actually pay for the cell phones they buy from the company.

Ferguson took T-Mobile to court after it introduced new mobile phone plans in late March that offer to sell customers phones at a substantial discount, let its customers pay over 24 months at no interest and give them wireless plans that are cheaper than competing plans. In Washington, D.C., we refer to this as proof that no good deed goes unpunished.

What upset Ferguson was the fact that T-Mobile insists that if you buy a phone from the company and then cancel your wireless contract, you still have to pay for the phone. Apparently the AG thinks that if you cancel your T-Mobile wireless service, you get to keep the phone for free. He calls the fact that T-Mobile wants you to pay for the phone you buy a "two-year sentence."

But Ferguson also appears to be engaging in another time-honored Washington tradition, which is to keep his friends close and his contributors even closer. Could it be that his crusade against T-Mobile has more to do with money in his campaign coffers than in protecting consumers?

If the AG is going to complain about T-Mobile's practices, how about the practices of the rest of the industry? Why isn't Ferguson going after Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint when they keep charging you for a phone you've paid off long before? I can think of three things, all of which could be true.

First, T-Mobile doesn't talk about having to pay Apple for your phone if you terminate your contract on its Website. Despite the fact that it seems obvious, probably it should.

Second, Ferguson just got elected in November of last year. If he's going to make a name for himself as a crusading politician so he can run for governor, then he has to go after somebody, and it's clearly not going to be Microsoft. After all, he used to work for Bill Gates' dad.

And third, there's always the question of campaign money. And guess what, Ferguson's fourth largest campaign contributor, right behind the state Democratic Party and a couple of big labor organizations, is AT&T. Do you think maybe Ferguson listens closely to what his biggest contributors want? Of course he does. He'll need them again in the next election, so why not keep them happy now?

I contacted Ferguson's office in Spokane, Wash., to ask whether his decision to take T-Mobile to court was influenced by the campaign contribution he received from AT&T.

"I don't think the contribution had any role. There's been no contact from AT&T that I'm aware of," said Janelle Guthrie, communications director at the state attorney general's office.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...