Nov 23, 2012 · 4 minutes

There’s another accessibility storm brewing inside of Apple’s iPhone walled garden, and for many, the forecast is getting old. The latest kerfuffle has to do with MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) compatibility, but it might as well be any of the other small irritants that have been confronting consumers for years. The bottom line is people move to Appleville for sunny days and are unlikely to tolerate the gloom.

MVNOs don’t have their own network infrastructure, but instead lease space on a traditional wireless carrier’s network and resell the access to their customers. There are literally dozens of such carriers in the US, piggybacking on the infrastructure of AT&T, Verizon, and the other big boy networks. As far as customers and their mobile phones can tell, however, there’s little difference in the experience other than price and brand.

For some reason, Apple seems to have taken a different attitude with the release of the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS 6. The company – deliberately or not, it’s not yet clear – removed user access to a section of the setting necessary to configure phones to operate on MVNOs.

In every prior version of iOS, users could edit the APN (Access Point Name). Essentially, these settings tell a phone what carrier door to knock on and what secret password to say when someone answers. The reason this is essential is that Apple doesn’t make specific phones for each MVNO. Instead, it makes phones compatible with various cellular network technologies – CDMA, GSM, LTE, etc. -- and multiple flavors within each bucket. It’s up to the user then and the carrier to modify the phones instructions to enable compatibility.

Or at least that’s how it used to work.

The issue is not necessarily that Apple decided to cease supporting this type of activity. It’s that the company did so and didn’t tell anyone, leaving anyone who upgraded unknowingly with a device and a carrier contract that can no longer be used together. Worse yet, Apple has a policy against downgrading operating systems, meaning that once you’re running iOS 6, there’s no supported way to go back to iOS 5. Don’t like it? Tough shit. It’s apple’s world and we’re just living in it.

One consumer named Nathan Anderson detailed his experience with this issue in a recent blog post titled “Apple Broke My iPhone, and Their Policies Prevent Them from Fixing It,” which became a heavily commented Hacker News thread.  In the post, he describes the many failed encounters he’s had with Apple customer support and executive team members. (He even wrote a letter to CEO Tim Cook, ccing Phil Schiller and Scott Forstall, SVP Worldwide Marketing and SVP iOS Software, respectively).

Anderson purchased a “factory unlocked” iPhone, meaning he paid full retail price of more than $500 for his device without a contract, rather than the $199 to $299 carrier subsidized price that most would pay when signing a two year service agreement. By shelling out this extra expense, Anderson believed he was paying for the option to do what he wanted with his phone.

Most any well-informed consumer would feel similarly based on the way that Apple positioned its unlocked devices. And all went according to plan initially. Anderson was a happy customer of Straight Talk Wireless, a MVNO operating on the AT&T network. Then he unknowingly signed his own walking papers by upgrading to iOS 6 – the shiny new operating system that Tim Cook and crew sold as the greatest thing to happen to his iPhone since 3G.

Anderson appears to be more technically savvy and customer service savvy than most, based on his own description of the ordeal. He not only knows enough to understand the problem, but has been smart enough to move his complaint up the management channels and document each step along the way for internet posterity – and ridicule. That he has failed to find resolution in a situation where most consumers would not be nearly as knowledgeable is the root of the problem.

All of this was acceptable tolerable when Apple was the undisputed king of the hill. Many looked at the company like the curmudgeonly but loveable old uncle that brought them presents with every visit, but could be frustrating to deal with from time to time. But now that consumers view the maturing Android platform and its increasingly powerful hardware options as a viable alternative, the poor customer service by Apple is getting old fast.

Like many, I am an iPhone user and love much about the beautiful and powerful platform that the company offers. Like many others, however, I continue to be disappointed and frustrated by the company’s obstinance in handling the most trivial of customer issues. More and more people are moving from the former camp to join Anderson and me in the latter with every passing day.

Apple is entirely within its powers to fix this situation, in the short term by downgrading Anderson’s device to iOS 5, and in the long term by reopening the APN edit functionality within its future versions of the mobile OS. In the meantime, with every day that passes and every instance of publicly dissatisfied customers, a bit of the lustre wears off the Apple monument.