Ina Fried

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T-Mobile Finds That Giving Away Free Data Is Harder Than It Sounds

T-Mobile figures that by giving tablet users free data, it might turn a few of them into paying customers.

But it turns out that giving away data is sometimes harder than it seems. T-Mobile’s operations — both human and computer-based — were just not set up to have a nonpaying relationship with customers. As a result, some of the company’s new tablet customers were erroneously charged $10 per month for data that was supposed to be free. T-Mobile has since corrected the problem, and plans to issue refunds to affected customers.

“We had a technology glitch and a training issue that caused some people to believe [they were being charged] — and some people to be charged,” T-Mobile chief marketing officer Mike Sievert said in an interview. “That’s just not right.”

T-Mobile’s plan does allow tablet buyers to bring over any new or existing tablet that’s compatible with T-Mobile’s network and get 200 megabytes of free data each month. On the iPad, for example, customers don’t even need to enter a credit card number, Sievert said. Anyone who was charged $10 for the free service will be credited automatically, he added.

“Every single customer gets free data for life if they have a tablet on our network,” Sievert said. “You don’t need to have any paying relationship with us whatsoever.”

The only other catch — and T-Mobile argues it has been clear about this from the start — is that customers who want to finance their tablet purchase through the carrier must have a paid relationship with T-Mobile.

But that doesn’t necessarily need to be through the tablet. For example, a T-Mobile postpaid phone customer could finance their iPad interest free, even without signing up for a monthly plan for the tablet. Those who aren’t phone customers need at least a $20-per-month tablet plan in order to finance the purchase.

Still, some are grousing that T-Mobile did make it sound like every customer could have both totally free data and finance their device.

“By offering free data for life with incredible upfront pricing, T-Mobile is un-leashing customers to fully enjoy iPad as it was meant to be enjoyed – mobile and connected,” CEO John Legere said in a press release touting the free data offer in conjunction with the ability to pay for the device in installments. T-Mobile phone customers can do both, but those without another line of T-Mobile service have to pay for their device outright or sign up for monthly paid data service to get the 200MB of free data.

Sievert said the free data offer is designed primarily to give people who aren’t currently T-Mobile customers a chance to try out the company’s network. “It has so rapidly improved and changed,” Sievert said. “It stacks up to everyone … People will eventually want more data from us.”

Update, 8:20 p.m.: T-Mobile has posted an updated FAQ to its Web site detailing the issues.

“We readily admit that we had some executional issues around our tablet launch on Nov. 1.,” T-Mobile says on the page. “Breaking with the industry norm and giving data away for free is complicated. There were legacy elements in our system and in our training activities that created the confusion. We are actively working to fix and clarify the website while re-educating all of our channel reps.”

Or, as Legere put it on Twitter:

“Bottom line: we are working to clear up the confusion, but at least we admit it & make it right,” he said, before taking a swipe at AT&T.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus