Wireless carriers are backpedaling on unlimited service offerings as smart customers figure out how to patch their phones to their laptops to take undue advantage of the all-you-can-eat data deals.
To get customers turned on to its cell phone-based wireless data services, Sprint PCS in the fall started offering several new plans for its 3G network that include unlimited “PCS Vision” data access at no extra charge for three months, and an additional $10 per month after that.
Other plans include the ability to customize plans by adding unlimited “Vision” data service to previously-existing plans for an additional $10 per month. These plans are designed for customers who want to read e-mail and Internet data on their phones.
At the same time, Sprint offers something called “PCS Vision for Laptops and PDAs.” These plans are designed for wireless access to the Internet using a PC card modem and cost $100 for unlimited data access.
The problem for Sprint, and the loophole for customers, is that its possible to use a Sprint phone as a laptop modem with a simple software download and a cable connection from the phone to the computer. Thus its possible to get access meant to cost $100 per month for free, simply by buying an entire phone plan that costs as little as $30.
Earlier this year, Sprint pulled connection cables from its site. Customers who order service and say they want a laptop connection are told they need to buy a PC Card modem and the “PCS Vision Plans for Laptops and PDAs” plan.
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And the small print in Sprints brochures certainly discourages the use of the phone as a modem: “Unlimited PCS Vision offer for PCS Free & Clear Plans with Vision is: (a) only available with a Vision capable PCS Phone or PCS smart phone device; and (b) not available with Connection Cards, Aircards, or any other device used in connection with a computer or PDA—including phones, smart phones or other devices used with connection kits or similar phone-to-computer/PDA accessories. Sprint reserves the right to deny or to terminate service without notice for misuse.”
But a Sprint PCS customer service representative said that he was told to discourage, but not disallow, customers from using connection cables from third parties, and the company actually contradicts itself on its own site.
“Funny thing is, Sprint still makes the connection manager software freely available as a download from their site,” said Joe Cummings, senior Web developer at the Boston Phoenix, a weekly newspaper in Boston who bought a connection cable at a local Radio Shack. “I get the impression that Sprint included those little nuggets as a safety valve in case access abuse blew up in their faces.”
The text accompanying the download says “PCS Connection Manager software allows laptops and PDAs to wirelessly connect to PCS Vision with a data cable and a PCS Phone or a PCS Connection Card.”
“I know that the group that handles our Web site is in the process of removing all verbiage from sprintpcs.com in relation to Connectivity Kits and software,” said Bit Vo, a Sprint PCS spokeswoman in Kansas City, Mo. But as of late this week, the software kit is still available on the site.
At any rate, customers can buy connection kits—both software and cables—from retail outlets and online.
FutureDial Inc. sells a connection kit called the SnapDialer that includes both cables and connection software. It works for 3G service connections from both Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless.
Verizon Wireless, for its part, is a little clearer about its unlimited data plans. Its a flat rate of $99 per month regardless of whether customers are using the phone as a Web browser or as a modem for a laptop. But Verizons terms are a little vague, too.
“Machine non-stop downloads, [such as] downloading the content of the Library of Congress using CDMA1X and are connected 24/7, are not allowed,” said Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless in Bedminster, N.J. “If we saw that kind of usage, wed contact the customer directly.”
Officials at FutureDial said that they are aware that customers are using their products to get laptop access via the plans Sprint PCS intends for the phone.
“My understanding is that theyd rather that you didnt do that,” said Byron Fujikawa, a customer support manager at FutureDial in Sunnyvale, Calif., which actually partners with Sprint PCS on other wireless data products. “They havent told us not to sell them.”
Cummings bought the SnapDial connection kit at a local Radio Shack.
“My prime motive for getting the cable was so that I could back up phone book data,” Cummings said. “Internet access is a happy bonus. Given my job as a Web developer, when a problem arises at work, I have to be able to connect. Its nice to know that I could fix any one of my employers properties when Im on the road—as long as I have a signal.”
Cummings pays $85 per month for 2000 voice minutes, plus the unlimited data access.
“There is no way Id spend $100 per month plus the cost of a card for a wireless Internet connection,” he added. “The cost just isnt worth it to me.”