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Apple SIM hell: How Sprint Mobile sent my iPad into a customer service nightmare

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Apple several years back introduced something great for the iPad called the “Apple SIM,” which lets you pick a wireless provider from a menu in the Settings app of the iPad, without ever having to call the phone company or visit a store for activation.

That means it’s a real breeze to set up a new iPad. But when it goes bad, like when you reformat an iPad, the dream becomes a nightmare.

Last week, I re-formatted a recently purchased Apple iPad Pro, the 11-inch model, to free up space on the device. (Memo to self: I always end up needing more storage than is in the base configuration, no matter how much I store things in the cloud.)

I thought I would be back up and running in no time with my existing cellular plan, a “Sprint Mobile Broadband Pass” that I picked out on the iPad. When you reset the iPad, by choosing, “Erase All Content and Settings,” a little menu pops up asking if you’d like to preserve the cellular plan you’ve bought, which is what I chose.

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Despite having a connection, the iPad told me I had no cellular connection. 

Once the iPad was erased and came to life again, the Sprint connection was, indeed, still there, listed in the Cellular Data portion of Settings. Then I got a queasy feeling in my stomach: There was no service. The data connection wouldn’t connect to anything. A message would pop up in Safari telling me I was not subscribed to any data plans, despite the Sprint plan being listed as “active” in the Cellular Data section. 

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I tried the usual methods: shutting off the iPad and turning it back on; installing a “carrier firmware update” that suddenly appeared; toggling off and on the airplane mode switch; and also something in Settings that lets you “reprovision account.” None of that did anything.

Having dealt with telephone companies for many years, I chose the coward’s option and went first to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York. The store rep again erased the iPad, while preserving the cellular subscription. No good, no change. My Sprint subscription still stared at me from the Cellular Data section, still doing nothing. The rep informed me this “often happens with Sprint,” meaning that Sprint seems to “lock” the SIM, and it has to be unlocked. At that point, they advised me to call Sprint.

Amidst the pounding beats of an Apple Store packed with people on Memorial Day at 10 pm, I tried to make my case to a rep on the main Sprint customer support line, a number which the Apple Store rep had given me. The Sprint rep finally decided I should call a different number and speak with Virgin Mobile, a Sprint division that tends to sell budget phone plans. But people at Virgin Mobile told me my problem was a Sprint pre-paid problem, and passed me off to Sprint’s pre-paid department. That process repeated itself, as my call was cut off and I had to start again.

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Despite having most of a pricey data plan still remaining, I had no service.

After a twenty-minute conversation with Sprint pre-paid, in which they couldn’t find out anything in their system about my device, they booked an appointment for me the next morning at a Sprint retail store to get technical support. 

At the Sprint store, reps were baffled. They had never heard of anything called “Sprint Mobile Broadband Pass.” They professed to be unaware one could simply order up cellular service from the iPad’s Settings menu. (I felt like the late Steve Jobs, showing them something magical on the device.) 

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They asked me for a user account number, but there’s no account number with Sprint Mobile Broadband Pass. While chatting with the reps, trying to find a way to help them do their jobs, I looked back at the invoice I had been sent from Sprint in email. It showed there was a specific phone number for support for Sprint Mobile Broadband Pass. At this point, I thought to myself, What a dummy! I should have started here. 

I called the number and proceeded to spend almost an hour on the phone with someone. They seemed to finally know what I was talking about — they at least did not ask me what Sprint Mobile Broadband Pass was. But they were having a hard time figuring out just what the problem was. 

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The choice to keep my cellular plan should have saved me but it didn’t.

At some point, after several periods of being asked to wait on hold, I looked down at the iPad and saw the Sprint plan listed in Settings had changed from “active” to “expired” before my very eyes. Some switch had been thrown, back in the network, and changed things. The rep was prepared to initiate a new Sprint Mobile Broadband Pass on the device, but I instead asked for my money back. The rep informed me that I would be getting a refund of the unused portion of the Broadband Pass in seven to 14 business days. When I asked for a confirmation, the rep, sounding a little shaky, I thought, muttered something about how I would receive an email informing me of my refund. I’ve seen no such email.

I reached out to Sprint, explaining the situation, and aside from an initial, customary reply, I’ve heard nothing back. I also reached out to Apple’s media relations, and aside from an initial, customary reply, I’ve heard nothing back. 

So what are the lessons here? One lesson is that Sprint, like many telecom operators, is selling too many products and no one at the company really knows what’s going on. It shouldn’t be the case that store reps have never, ever heard of Sprint Mobile Broadband Pass, or that I should have to explain that one can activate cellular plans straight from an iPad. The same goes for people on the telephone support lines at Sprint. I won’t be using Sprint anymore on the iPad.

But it was never going to be appealing for any carrier to put a lot of effort into supporting Apple SIM. The Apple SIM removes some of the control carriers can have over the customer, and so carriers are naturally dis-incentivized to support it. It’s really up to Apple to corral all these carriers and make sure they support the product. It makes one wonder if Apple spends any time at all talking to the phone companies to coordinate any of this, aside from the basic technical work of making sure the programming interfaces connect.

The lesson for the rest of us is that some degree of frustration is highly likely over the course of using cellular on the iPad. I’ve seen similar problems with used iPads that once had cellular plan, where the plan has lapsed. Trying to resuscitate a lapsed plan on an iPad can be impossible, and trying to add a new plan with a different carrier may lead to having to go to the carrier store, thus defeating the whole point of Apple SIM.

So, plan on having to deal with headaches if you hold onto an iPad for some amount of time and if you try erasing it or eventually switching carriers. As far as carriers, I’ve found the plans are all fairly expensive — $80 for twelve gigabytes is a good example — and each of the carriers here in the states, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile US, and two smaller resellers, AlwaysOnline and Gigsky, can all be good or bad, it just seems to depend on the luck of the draw in any given month, or week. 

Most of all, take a deep breath, walk around the block, and try not to let your blood pressure get too high when you’re dumped into a telecom nightmare. 


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