Every day, there’s always some piece of tech news or rumor that excites, frustrates or baffles people en masse. But this weekend takes the cake.
AT&T temporarily stopped selling iPhones online to people in New York City. Why does an AT&T-NY connection ring a bell? Because it’s one of Blue’s two most data-intensive areas in the country. (The other is San Francisco.) And not that long ago, the carrier admitted that “Gotham” suffered bad service on its network and vowed to address this — while notably pinning the trouble on the data-heavy habits of iPhone users in the region.
So this was their fix? Wow. It’s like saying, “Well that’ll teach you NY iPhone users to complain. You’re the worst offenders in the bunch, so we’re going to thin your numbers for the good of everyone, you cry babies.” (Note: To be fair, the company didn’t actually say that. This is just my own imaginary musings starring AT&T’s Ralph De La Vega, twirling his mustache and throwing iPhone hopefuls under a bus, one after another.) What’s strange about this is it only affected online shoppers. Brick-and-mortar customers were still able to buy them at retail stores, so as a defensive strategy, it wasn’t exactly logical.
The Consumerist actually went to try and find out the truth. The site confirmed over the weekend that online shoppers with NYC zip codes were prevented from purchasing iPhones via the AT&T website. Then blogger Laura Northrup contacted the carrier customer service department directly. Things only got more baffling from there:
Daphne: Welcome to AT&T online Sales support. How may I assist you with placing your order today?
Laura: Hi, I was looking at the iPhone 3GS and the system tells me that I cannot order one in my ZIP code. My zip code is 11231 (Brooklyn). Is this true? Are iPhones no longer available in New York City?
Daphne: I am happy to be helping you today. Yes, this is correct the phone is not offered to you because New York is not ready for the iPhone.
Daphne: You don't have enough towers to handle the phone.
But AT&T released a statement by spokesman Fletcher Cook, who simply gave a ho-hum explanation to The Consumerist that contradicted these remarks while actually illuminating nothing: "We periodically modify our promotions and distribution channels."
I guess it’s AT&T’s network and services, and I suppose they are at liberty to do what they want with it (within legal limits). Not that I agree with the company’s approach here, but I suppose it’s not a crime. A weird, wacky, nearly inexplicable course of action, yes, but not a crime.
Alright, PhoneDog readers — In all honesty, here’s where this post was going to end, with a conclusion in the vein of one of those “Waddayagonnado?” type of articles. But things keep getting weirder, and I can’t seem to look away. Since the story broke all over the webs, AT&T reps started telling people the following: "Due to increased fraudulent activity, the Apple iPhone may not be available to purchase online in certain ZIP codes."
Is it me, or does none of this make any sense? Earlier on, some blogs hinted that the strange drama could’ve been due to some sort of New York–based online sales fraud, but that theory was (and still is) full of holes. First, the shutdown was completely iPhone-centric — none of AT&T’s other equally costly handsets were singled out. And even if some sort of scam targeted the iPhone only, why does it make sense to target only one region? Meanwhile, the handsets are still being sold in stores. (As a response, the AT&T customer service rep quoted above added: “We do have others at similar prices, you’re right, but nothing else that is as popular… sometimes popularity leads people to make poor decisions.")
But in the 2008 Internet Crime Report (PDF), from the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, New York isn’t the No. 1 state for internet fraud; that’s California. New York is No. 2, and Florida is No. 3. But residents in neither California (including San Francisco) nor Florida have had trouble purchasing iPhones online.
At this point, online iPhone purchasing has been restored to New York. So I guess that internet fraud thing must’ve sorted itself out at lightning speed, or perhaps the carrier’s modified its promotion and distribution channel again. Or maybe Big Blue just decided that the bad press wasn’t worth its crazy scheme to “fix” the area’s network.
Whatever the real truth is, I can’t help but wonder one thing: Would AT&T ever dreamed of pulling this stunt if it wasn’t about to lose iPhone exclusivity? I doubt it. (No wonder the carrier hired Luke Wilson to give a celebrity recorded pep talk/holiday greeting to its own, probably demoralized, ranks. If I had to work there and deal with upset people when I didn't know what the heck was going on, I'd be demoralized too.)