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AT&T Text Messaging: Can it be Disabled?

My oldest teenage daughter got an iPhone for Christmas. Within a few hours: $8.40 in text messaging charges, giving me a heart attack, so to speak. The Apple iMessage app is simply “data” like any other app, but not SMS messaging. She now knows the difference, and had to inform all her friends not to SMS her. But that is not a fix, it’s a case-by-case headache and does not stop random junk or new friends, or plain old mistakes by friends.

We disabled SMS for outgoing, but it doesn’t stop incoming SMS at $0.20 each with messages like “hey”. It turns out that there is NO WAY to disable incoming SMS text messaging on an iPhone.

Note that if 5 million unwary users text at $8 for one day (or a few) as above, that’s $40M. That is quite a compelling business model.

I couldn’t call or chat with AT&T on Christmas day, but an online search found this aparently disturbing policy on the AT&T web site.

You cannot disable text messaging on your wireless account, as this service comes bundled with your wireless service from AT&T. All of our messaging-capable wireless phones come pre-activated to send and receive text messages at pay-per-use rates. It is not possible to remove text messaging from your wireless account or turn it off on your wireless device.

As stated: AT&T sets up phones to charge extra for the data you already pay for (by the language fiat of calling data “text”). Even an astute consumer has no way to disable it, by design. Wow. But see the update below—the statement is misleading or erroneous at the least.

But is it actually true that AT&T will not disable SMS messaging for a smartphone? I called AT&T the next day and learned some things, see Update below.

The choice is either an additional $20 a month for unlimited texting or the risk of an unbounded texting charge. Strong arm tactics. That is in addition to $30 a month for “data” (what is text if not data?!) and that’s on top of $9.99 a month for the phone in a family plan ($40 total). So AT&T really wants you to pony up $60 a month (plus fees and taxes). There is some kind of sharing plan alternative. But looking into it, it’s a one way street (cannot be reversed), and it raises my total costs for all my family phones. I feel like a steer in a cattle chute heading to slaughter.

There is a parental controls feature at AT&T. That will set you back $4.99 a month. In other words, you get charged so you can control stuff you don’t want. And then you still have to monitor things. Joy.

Few companies can get away with this kind of behavior (minimal competition is a real problem in the phone industry, for consumers that is). If the US congress wants to fix something everyone could agree on, this is surely a fertile area, referring to the steer noted previously.

But let’s hold a powerful player accountable: Apple makes enormous profits from its iPhone, and Apple has in its power the ability to include a “total SMS disable” feature on the iPhone. And Apple surely has the power to pressure AT&T to offer consumers a choice. Shame on Apple and Tim Cook (and predecessor) for being enablers. For a company seeking to build the best product on the market, this is surely rationalized-away cognitive dissonance (total customer experience), and a slap in the face to customers buying Apple phones. Silence is a moral sanction—a brief press release stating that Apple “disapproves” of such policies would be a powerful lever, and it would satisfy me.

Update: satisfaction

I called AT&T on the 26th. In spite of the “unusually heavy call delay” advisory, I got through in two minutes or so. The phone representative was courteous and professional—absolutely no complaints there, I complimented her accordingly (I never a confuse a company policy with the person on the line!). The representative got the change made quickly, and even credited the pay-per-use texting charges.

My phone bill now under my control again, I felt relieved. But this kind of experience need not exist at all in the first place; customers have a reasonable expectation of being able to control their costs without jumping through hoops. It ought to be a control right on the phone, or at least online in the customer account. Having to call in is a hurdle, presumably by intent.

Account details with Test Message Opt-Out

YES, you can add text block and other blocks to your phone plan. The 'MobileShare' plans include unlimited texting, but other plans are pay-per-use, which was my issue above.

An account might look like this once the Opt-Outs are added:

Call AT&T (611) to opt out of pay-per-use text and picture/video options (“Test Message Opt-Out”)

The online opt-out support page

I read the opt-out text to the AT&T representative, who told me that this statement applies to a MobileShare plan, though the web page does not/did not say that when I visited it. Of course, she could have been as confused as I was.

MobileShare plans have unlimited texting, so why would pay-per-use be mentioned?

You cannot disable text messaging on your wireless account, as this service comes bundled with your wireless service from AT&T.

All of our messaging-capable wireless phones come pre-activated to send and receive text messages at pay-per-use rates. It is not possible to remove text messaging from your wireless account or turn it off on your wireless device.

This makes no sense: pay-per-user rates for unlimited texting? It’s a contradiction. One has to conclude that the statement is for pay-per-use non MobileShare plans.

Regarding MobileShare, it has its own implications (if-then-but-else-and stuff one has to look at carefully), and so is not a no-brainer for savings. For example, phones on MobileShare that are out of contract carry a $20 per month surcharge, and I have two. So one pays that surcharge, or upgrades phones. It is possible to sidegrade to the same model and take on the 2 year contract at less cost than, say, upgrading to an iPhone 5s. Point is, “savings” are not necessarily there when the carefully crafted (by AT&T) plan is examined. That analysis will vary for everyone. Nor is switching providers viable as a practical matter; my own remote travel needs for coverage cannot be determined by any coverage map.


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