iPhone 3GS and the Aircel trap!
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iPhone 3GS and the Aircel trap!

Aircel has been one of two carriers in India selling the iPhone. Many have wondered how the second-rate carrier managed to forge an alliance with what is arguably the best mobile phone brand in the world, and what earned it the privilege.

The question seems even more gripping today. Let me provide you the context.

Recently, Aircel slashed the price of the iPhone 3GS by half – to 9,999 Indian rupees (about $185) – and began selling it bundled with a service package of 3,000 rupees (about $56). It was an imaginative deal in a price-sensitive market, one in which Apple has hardly made a ripple.

Apple’s role in this deal has never been explained. Airtel, the only other carrier that offers the iPhone in India, has simply not followed the price cut. It still sells the same iPhone 3GS at double Aircel’s price.

I know Apple cares for its customers. It should partner with carriers that share the sentiment. Let me explain why Aircel is one that doesn’t.

My wife has used the iMac for the past several years. We bought an iPad soon as it was launched and recently I bought a MacBook Air. But only last week, my wife was tempted to pick up the iPhone and fell for the Aircel offer – a moment of impulse she bitterly regrets after 10 days. Here’s why.

She received her phone three days after booking. It took Aircel a further three days to activate voice calling, but not the Internet. Twenty-four hours after activation, it barred outgoing calls, apparently because Aircel’s system (and humans) thought my wife had exceeded her “credit limit.” At other times, customer service agents asked her to pay a deposit of 3,000 rupees, apparently the money already paid had yet to find its way into her account. When my wife has called Aircel’s customer and technical service, she has been bumped off – like cell signals, perhaps – from one number to another.

When she finally confronted the guy who sold her the phone, the voice calling was restored after 24 hours. But, tonight, Aircel has again pulled the plug for no clear reason.

Unlike elsewhere in the world, Aircel’s iPhone users can’t make use of Genius bars in India. We think activating a phone – especially one as simple as the iPhone – shouldn’t take a genius. But Aircel obviously doesn’t care enough.

Aircel’s service guy in Ooty, a relatively small hill station in southern India, was no genius. He told us the iPhone wouldn’t work on the Wi-fi until it was activated by the carrier. For the past two days, the clearly ill-trained guy has been trying – earnestly, I would have to concede – to get the iPhone connected to the Internet. He tells us the Internet activation can be done only through iTunes authentication. We are no Luddites but remain clueless why that should be a method of authentication, not to mention Aircel’s preferred method. All it should take is for the SIM to be activated for data usage. Or so we think.

I think the above should be a matter of serious concern to Apple chief Tim Cook, who last week told analysts he “loved India” but doesn’t consider its business potential very high. At this rate, Apple is not going to win any friends out here in India. I simply can’t understand how a company that sets high standards in nearly everything – including the customer experience – can allow this kind of appalling service standards for its phone sales.

As I write this on a Saturday night, my wife is still furiously working the Aircel phones for help. My suggestion to her has been to simply throw away Aircel’s SIM card and use her existing Airtel connection to the thankfully unlocked phone. But why should we expect, and put up with, this kind of service from an Apple brand?