A screen cracked, an upgrade whacked: Verizon's clever (or, depending on your perspective, sacked)

-February 05, 2013

Well, that sucks. I've owned a diversity of display-inclusive handheld devices (smartphones, tablets, multimedia players, etc) for many years now, but it wasn't until about a month ago that I shattered my first screen (on a third-generation iPad). Alas, as of earlier today (I'm writing this on January 27), I've gone and done it again. This time, my Verizon-tailored iPhone 4 was the victim.

I had taken the smartphone out of my right pants pocket and transferred it to my left hand in preparation for pulling my keys out of my right jacket pocket and putting them in my right pants pocket...in preparation for taking off my jacket and tying it around my waist. Also in my left hand, as I unwisely realized in retrospect, were the handles of three dogs' leashes. The dogs were distracted by a squirrel, their leashes jerked, the iPhone 4 flew out of my hand and landed face-down on a rock, and:

I've actually got ~3 weeks worth of AppleCare extended warranty coverage left on this iPhone 4. But perhaps obviously, this particular scenario isn't covered charge-free to me, since it represents an owner handling error versus a design flaw. With the successor (and more expensive) AppleCare+ plan, unveiled coincident with the introduction of the iPhone 4S, you're allowed up to two screen replacements through the warranty coverage period at $49 per incident. AppleCare, on the other hand, charges $200 per LCD swap.

My initial thought, once the frustration with the dogs and squirrel had dissipated, was to use the iPhone 4's damage as a hardware upgrade and platform transition opportunity. I've periodically migrated back and forth between iOS and Android over the years; the fact that I'd been toting two iPhones (one on AT&T for personal use, the other on Verizon for work) for nearly two years now was something of an anomaly. Their lack of LTE support was an ever-increasing annoyance, particularly now that I was getting a taste of LTE's performance potential on the iPad 3. And I remembered that I'd recently seen mention of a refurbished Galaxy Nexus for less money than what a replacement LCD for the iPhone 4 would cost me.

Alas, upon further research, I realized that the Android conversion path wasn't an option for me if I wanted to retain my "grandfathered" unlimited-data plan. I've written several times before about how both AT&T and Verizon have ceased offering an unlimited-data option for their cellular subscribers. In AT&T's case, the carrier is using various carrot-and-stick motivations to wean legacy subscribers like me on to a newer metered plan (blocking access to services such as FaceTime video chat over cellular, for example). However, when I migrated from the first- to third-generation iPad several months ago, AT&T supported my unlimited-data plan on the newer hardware, even though it involved an HSPA (3G cellular data)-to-LTE (4G) transition.

Verizon's take on the wean-'em-off aspiration is seemingly more sublime but, I realized after today's research, ultimately quite definitive. I'd known for a while now that Verizon was no longer offering hardware subsidies to legacy unlimited-data subscribers in exchange for renewals of multi-year contracts; you needed to purchase your new handset at full price from Verizon (or alternatively bring your own hardware purchased elsewhere to your contract) and go month-to-month. However, for EV-DO (3G) hardware owners like me, LTE upgrades are also not allowed. This means that I'm stuck either:
  1. Getting my existing iPhone 4 repaired (which, if I take it to Apple, will involve first wiping it clean, since it's currently jailbroken and Apple won't honor the warranty on it in its current software state),
  2. Buying a replacement iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S (but not the latest iPhone 5), or
  3. Buying an old Android handset that's not LTE-compatible.
Verizon's strategy is quite clever, if you think about it. Over time, LTE-less hardware options will become fewer and fewer, eventually disappearing completely. And invariably, if for no other reason than a handset's embedded battery eventually fails to hold a charge after enough recharge cycles have elapsed, unlimited-data subscribers' existing handsets will perish. At that point, the subscribers won't have any feasible alternative to being forced off their unlimited data plans. They lose. Verizon and its shareholders win. America: what a country!

For now, I've taken a two-part approach to solving the cracked-screen problem. I just ordered a claimed like-new replacement iPhone 4 off eBay, which includes several more months' worth of AppleCare coverage, and which cost only a few dollars more than Apple would have charged me for the LCD replacement alone. And, with an editorial project in mind, I'm also in the process of obtaining a replacement touchscreen-inclusive LCD (and accompanying toolset) from my buddies at iFixit, which I'll use to tackle self-repair of my existing handset. Should I succeed, I'll either re-sell one of the two iPhone 4s or pass it along to my girlfriend, who's currently using my even older iPhone 3GS on AT&T. Stay tuned for a follow-up report upon conclusion of the pending surgical procedure.

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