An unusual iPad 3G activation problem

AT&T Logo This afternoon I got a call from the folks who had spent hours trying to activate the cellular data plan on an iPad. Having called Apple and AT&T didn't help. The frustration level was understandably very high. At the end of the day it boils down to an odd little problem that AT&T never anticipated.

First the interface for activation isn't great at dealing with errors. The cycle would run like this. You enter all the data and submit it. The system doesn't like your physical address and tells you so. When it presents the form with the error it also removes the password you've entered in your last attempt. However it doesn't highlight the password field so you don't know readily it's been removed. Your next submission is rejected for not having a password. Once you fill that in it gets rejected for the address again and around, and around, and around you go.

Having been through things like this in the past I knew immediately what the problem is. Depending on how you look at it the problem is the US Post Office or AT&T's programmers.

The folks live in the 89018 zip code. Rather, that's where they get their mail. The state of Nevada, Clark County, UPS and countless databases apply that same zip code to their physical street address. However if you query the USPS they will tell you that zip code only applies to post office boxes. Since AT&T won't accept a post office box as your street address their system rejects it.

So while this is perhaps easy to pin on an inaccuracy between the real use of this zip code and the USPS definition of it, there is plenty of evidence that AT&T has that the zip code is used for street addresses. To start with AT&T, back to the Ma-Bell days, is the phone provider for this zip code. Granted it's an extension of their Reno, Nevada office and is hundreds of miles from there, but they know where the street addresses are in the 89018 zip code. Of course that's in a different system.

To add insult to injury phone calls to AT&T's customer support center don't provide any help in this situation. They want to know what the phone number of the device is and tell you it can be found on the invoice. Of course it cannot be found on the invoice since the wireless service for the ipad is a different sort of critter and doesn't have a pre-assigned phone number. Next the customer service folks don't have much understanding how things like this in the database get broken.

The short answer for this problem in the near-term is to give a physical address from another location and you'll get a phone number assigned for that location instead. Just make sure your billing address matches your credit card and your physical address isn't a PO Box only address.