Ask Us: AT&T sent me a letter for a free upgrade with no contract?!?

As bizarre as it may seem that a big company would be giving you something for nothing; letters like these go out semi-regularly.  I frequently see customer questions about these letters in forums.  The first thing people want to know is: what’s the catch?

If you’ve received one of these letters or are just curious as to what these campaigns are all about read on to find out more.


What’s up Their Sleeve?

While the motivation for the letter is definitely that AT&T wants to retain your business, the offers in these letters are usually quite generous.  Most frequently they relate to some type of network change: the repurposing of highly limited spectrum assets or the shutdown of legacy networks.  These changes happen periodically and are aimed at reducing operating costs and preparing for new and better network advancements.  If they’ve sent you one of these letters, your service will likely stop working if you don’t act.  It also likely means you’ve more than likely been using the same phone for several years.

Recent Campaigns


Shutdown of the Cellular One Network - AT&T purchased Cellular One and began migrating customers late in 2007.  Customers had the option of keeping the same phone and were sent a special SIM card to make it compatible with the AT&T network.  In order to make the Cell One phones compatible certain parts of the legacy Cell One network had to be maintained even after the migration process was complete.  In late 2010 the campaign for the network shutdown began and the customers still using their Cell One phones were given the option of a free upgrade with no contract or yet another SIM card that would make their phones compatible with the AT&T network.

Shutdown of the (Original) AT&T Wireless Network – Cingular purchased AT&T Wireless in 2004.  Cingular changed its name to AT&T Mobility in 2007 after one of its parent companies purchased AT&T Incorporated, provider of landline services.  Years later there are still a few customers on the network using their same handsets from AT&T wireless that are at least 6 years old.  The free no-contract upgrade letters began going out in early 2011.  The actual shutdown happens in May.  As of yet I have not heard of the option to just get a new SIM.

Single-Band GSM (2G) 1900mhz Handset Users – After the merger of AT&T Wireless and Cingular in 2004, Cingular owned licenses in the 850 and 1900 band throughout most of the country.  Cingular “dual cast” its GSM signal in both bands until it began deployment of its 3G network in 2005.  The 3G technology then took over the 1900 band.  If you’re in one of the 2G areas that are scheduled to be upgraded to 3G in the soon future and you have one of these phones, you would have received one of these mailers offering a free upgrade with no contract.

Users of 2G Phones with High Voice Usage – I don’t fully understand the technological aspects of this one.  All I know it the users who currently using 2G phones in certain states (California is one of them) are being sent free-upgrade-with-no-contract mailers.  I could speculate that the 3G handles voice calls more efficiently and they want to keep both 2G and 3G networks running smoothly, but that’s purely speculation.

Accepting (or not accepting) the Offer:  What You Should Know

As I mentioned earlier, these offers are actually quite generous.  You could take the offer and get a $300 phone and still be free to cancel at anytime without penalty.  Generous doesn’t always necessarily mean without any strings attached though.

Read the offer carefully.  Some of them might require you to switch off your 7 year old plan when you switch off your 7 year old phone.

The offers are usually for a comparable device: a smartphone offer for a smartphone user.  Perhaps you’re a smartphone user who doesn’t have a data plan from a time when they weren’t required.  Accepting the offer will mean complying with any current feature requirements the new device has.

These things aren’t always bad depending on the circumstance though.  You may find when you update your plan that you can get a nationwide plan for the same price you were paying for your regional plan.  Or that smartphone data plans have dropped by $15 since you last updated your service 6 years ago. Some of the offers require no plan changes at all.

What Should I do?

Whether accepting the offer or not, what you must do is act.  You may not have to act immediately but if you read through the mailer you may find some language in there stating that failure to act will lead to your service automatically being cancelled on such and such date.  From now till then you will probably receive several additional notifications, some may have different phones and different terms.  If you’ve received your first notification it may read like an ultimatum, but there are likely additional offers you’ll receive prior the deadline.

So read through the mailer and the fine print, do a little research on current plan offerings and accept the offer (or not.)  It’s not often that the result of not keeping up with technology is that you get a chance to leap forward with no cost or obligation.