A struggle to restore a dead smartphone

This is a technology horror story with blame to go around. For the nearly two weeks I was without a working phone, I must have spent half of that time trying to figure out what had happened to my Moto G4 Play and to bring it back to life.

The ordeal started on July 4. Sitting under a tree on the Museum Campus, I took advantage of a wifi connection to install the Android OS update that I’d been prompted about. When the update finished and I restarted the phone, cellular service was gone. Republic Wireless, my carrier, wasn’t activated. Clicking on activate brought a no-server-connection message. A SIM network unlock pin was requested. Republic emailed two SIM unlock pins, but neither worked.

I tried many suggestions from Republic technicians as well as tips found online. Remove the SIM card, wait a few minutes, and reinstall it. Toggle airplane mode on and off. Remove VPN apps. Call various numbers to refresh settings. Use safe mode to identify troublemaker apps and remove them. Wipe the cache partition. (I learned things that I hope to never have to remember.)

After a couple of days of futile troubleshooting on both our parts, a Republic help technician decided that the phone needed a new SIM card, which he’d send. It took four days for the card to arrive, and it didn’t solve anything; the same error messages came up.

Since the staff techies were stumped, I decided to post a plea for advice on the Republic community forum. Within minutes someone answered: Republic Wireless had put out a July 5 advisory not to install the update on Moto G4 phones purchased from a third party and on software channel cc.

I’d not seen the advisory, but coming out the day after I installed the update, it wouldn’t have helped. I had another reason to be annoyed: I’d wasted six days dealing with Republic’s tech staff, none of whom apparently knew about their own company’s advisory. Neither did the Motorola help people know about the problem, and it was Motorola that sent the notification to download and install the upgrade.

So, I had reasons to be upset with my carrier and the phone’s manufacturer. But when I finally understood what had happened to the phone, I was more upset with myself. Why? I bought the phone on eBay. I had checked as much as I knew to check: the model number was on Republic’s list of compatible phones, and the seller said the phone was unlocked. It performed perfectly during the 14-day return window. But there was evidence hidden under settings > about phone > software channel that the phone was not unlocked, and I didn’t know enough to look for it. The software channel is cc — Consumer Cellular, which locks its customers’ phones.

I found out last week that the eBay seller buys liquidated phones from Target, a Consumer Cellular merchant. Why the lock didn’t trigger when I activated Republic Wireless almost 14 months ago is a mystery. With the system update, “the carrier lock is now working as designed,” the Republic community manager wrote. Now the phone is nonperforming as expected; it was a fluke that the phone worked before.

Over the years I’ve bought many things safely on eBay, but a smartphone should not have been one of them. It doesn’t matter where a book has been, but that’s not true of a phone or probably any electronics product. Even the seller of the phone, to whom I also wrote, acknowledged it’s buyer beware on eBay: “We have no way of telling who the phone was originally registered to. I am sorry you are experiencing this, but I hope you can appreciate our position on an item that has been working for over six months which was purchased at a liquidation price off of eBay.” 

The Moto G4 Play isn’t salvageable unless Consumer Cellular provides an unlock code, and it won’t do that for a noncustomer.

Republic’s help folks redeemed themselves last Wednesday by offering me a refurbished Moto G4 Play. Relief didn’t last long, however. On Thursday came a notice that the Moto G4 Play was on back order, followed within minutes by another email that the order had been cancelled. The billing department, to which my case had been shifted, didn’t answer my emails.

I woke up Friday determined that before the day was over, I’d know whether and when I would get a phone from Republic Wireless or have to purchase one. “If Republic is reneging on the offer of a phone, I would be disappointed, but at least I would know what I should do now,” my email to the billing and help departments concluded. A few hours later the help department offered a different refurbished phone, a Moto E4, which arrived Monday afternoon.

Finally calm, I thought about how little I actually use a phone for calling, but how cut off I felt without one. The biggest worry was that my elderly parents couldn’t reach me, nor I them. Dad’s 98th birthday and Mom’s 91st were last week, and I had to send birthday messages through my siblings. I planned to visit them on the weekend, and my sister had to tell them what time the train would arrive.

In case this post leaves a bad impression of Republic Wireless, I want to say that I’ve been with the very affordable carrier for years without previous problems. Republic wasn’t to blame for the phone’s locking up, so it went above and beyond in offering a free phone. As for the clueless help people, I suspect that many carriers stumble around trying to solving customers’ tech problems.

Not knowing what to do with the Moto G4 Play, I offered it to Republic. A help person said that maybe the techies would like to pull it apart to try to figure out why the Consumer Cellular lock didn’t kick in with the old OS. The useless phone may still be good for something.

*****

ANTI-TRUMP QUOTATION: 21ST IN AN ONGOING SERIES

“Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. . . . No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”

— Senator John McCain

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