We all love the phone company, right? This time I’m not writing about ATT or my dsl modem (see previous posts, if interested). This time, I’m writing about Virgin Mobile, whose prepaid phones we’ve been using for some time now. We’ve started to notice that their customer service is going down the tubes and their prices are going up. We’ve actually never been very satisfied with their coverage, either — we get it in Columbus where we don’t use a cell phone very often, but on the road, where we might, we were constantly searching for service. Many of the places where we go were just outside of the coverage area, including both of our parents’ homes, and a lot of road in between. Kim wanted to use an iPhone so she could connect with wifi and text messaging more easily. She found a good deal on a nice one through ebay, and decided to go with another prepaid plan PagePlus. Even though Virgin now has iPhones, on PagePlus, she could bring her own phone that she bought–it has to be a Verizon or PagePlus phone–and the coverage is through Verizon’s network.
I found a blog post at Geek in the Forest by a woman who had done exactly what we wanted to do, and so we were off. Here’s where the challenge began! The problems so far have not been with PagePlus, but instead with Virgin Mobile. There wouldn’t have been a problem, if we didn’t want to save friends and family the hassle of entering a new phone number for her (and updating schools, etc.). First, we had to make sure she had active service — we had let it run out, so had to put a little money on the phone to start the account up. That’s not so bad, and was something we expected. The cost of adding money to the account was the same as the cost of getting a new number at PagePlus, and Kim used up most of the money to make a few calls before we made the switch, so we really weren’t out anything.
The problem was that Virgin doesn’t tell you your actual account number. You use your phone number to log in to their website, and there is no mention of the account number anywhere in your account information. I had to call customer service to get the information we needed to port the phone number to PagePlus. That’s a hassle, but still not too bad — or it wasn’t until I tried to call.
Virgin has gone to completely automated “customer service.” When I called, I got the typical menu of options: press 1 to get information you probably already know, press 2 to do something you don’t want to do, etc. Pressing 5 was for “anything else,” but it didn’t lead to a person–it led to another menu of things I might want to do, but didn’t. I tried a few options on a few phone calls. Nowhere in the labyrinth of the customer service menus was there an option to talk to a person. I tried filling out the form on their website. After several minutes, I got an automated reply that just thanked me for contacting them and said they’d get back to me eventually. I called again.
This time, out of desperation, I tried a trick I’ve heard of for the auto-menu-from-hell. I dialed 0, even though it’s not one of the menu options listed. This took me to a ‘secret’ mini-menu of three items. I forget the first two, but the third was support, which sounded promising and did lead me to a real person. She was actually quite nice and gave me the information I needed. Now PagePlus is trying to port our number again, and soon we will have a new account (unless there is some new wrinkle) on a new carrier. The coverage promises to be better, so if it’s not too hard to keep the phone active, then we’ll be happy. If we’re reasonably happy, I plan to call Virgin support one more time (as soon as I use up some minutes on my phone!) and get the other account number, so I can switch it as well. I probably won’t go with a smart phone, though. I have an old Verizon dumb-phone that has a new battery and is just itching to be used about once every few months. And I love the fact that the minutes I buy on PagePlus can last 120 days. That means I could keep a phone for my minimal use for just $30 a year.
And PagePlus has an online chat service for registered accounts. I called the first time, and the hold wasn’t too bad (maybe 15 minutes), but the guy a spoke with (without navigating an intricate menu system) told me I could register for an account before my phone was activated and then do everything via chat. That was much quicker, and I could listen to my own music, not Virgin’s hold music. Something tells me this could be a good move. The only drawback to PagePlus is that they are on Verizon’s CDMA network, so when you buy a phone, you have to get one with the right antenna, and you won’t be able to use that phone on another carrier. But if the service is good, that won’t be a problem. Kim has an iPhone 4 — she was looking to go as basic as possible and that’s the earliest one available for Verizon — so there’s not much difference between it and other GSM iPhones. I’ve read there are some more issues, such as no simultaneous voice and data on CDMA, which you can do on GSM phones for the iPhone 5. If those are issues you care about, be sure to check out the differences between carriers before you make up your mind! For my old Motorola dumb-phone, it won’t make a difference at all.