AT&T Has Differing Coverage Areas For Pre-Paid vs. Contract Customers?

On a recent trip to Central Oregon and specifically Bend, Oregon, I was perplexed as to why my Nokia E71 would not come out of ‘Offline’ mode. Thinking it was an issue with the phone or my account, I looked into when I returned home.

After looking at the coverage map for the Bend area (a metropolitan area of about 150,000 people in the central part of the state), I did see that Bend is in the covered area for AT&T service, as seen in the screenshot below.

However, I noticed the link above this map that says “GoPhone” and clicked it. I’m a pre-paid AT&T customer, meaning I use the “Pick Your Plan” option to avoid a yearly service agreement. Clicking the GoPhone gave me this map, which doesn’t include the Bend area.

Why would AT&T do this to their pre-paid customers? I imagine at least some pre-paid customers are those who are trying out AT&T to see if they like the service. If the coverage areas are separate and not as broad, AT&T may lose out on some customers who don’t like to be treated indifferently.

So why the difference in coverage areas? My guess is that AT&T doesn’t have towers of their own in the region specified above and are using a peer carrier to make calls. Using a peer carrier costs AT&T by the minute and I imagine they don’t make a good profit margin on service in these areas, making it illogical to give pre-paid customers coverage in these geographic areas.

One note – I’ve used T-Mobile pre-paid before, and T-Mobile doesn’t treat their pre-paid customers any differently with respect to coverage areas. T-Mobile pre-payers have access to the entire T-Mobile network without restriction.