Many people blame the iPhone for the problems that its owners have experienced on ATT in the US. However, there is evidence that it’s ATT’s problem. Ever since the iPhone was released, there have been many people (me included) that have had reception problems with the iPhone. Dropped calls, inability to make calls, and slow data speeds have been the main symptoms.
There are many forums that have threads discussing these issues. Even on Apple’s forums, like the one here. There are so many people having these problems that the conversation filled 5 different threads. The last continuation has posts up to this day.
Most of the people reporting performance problem live in areas with high concentrations of iPhones. Either that or they are more vocal about the problems. The typically reported trouble areas are New York City and the San Francisco Bay area. I have very spotty reception in my neighborhood in Boston, but it’s reasonable elsewhere. Wired conducted a study in the summer of 2008 that shows a large variability in ATT network performance.
There has been very little reporting of 3G phone / data quality problems in other countries of the scale as we’ve had in the US. [EDIT Looks like O2 in London has been having similar problems, but they are taking responsibility, unlike ATT.] It could be an issue of combined factors. Most other countries have much denser populations than the US. On that Wikipedia page, when sorted by population density, the US is 178. Most other countries with well developed GSM / 3G networks have much less area to cover and so are able to use more towers. In the US though, CDMA was used for the first mobile phone networks since each tower has longer range and the signals have greater penetration through objects.
You can see from the maps that Verizon has much greater 3G coverage than ATT does, mainly for these reasons. ATT has had to spend more to get this much coverage than Verizon did due to needing more towers to blanket the same area. And ATT did not expect the huge success that the iPhone had. They sold roughly 1 million phones in the first 2.5 months the summer of 2007 after the iPhone went on sale and roughly 50 million iPhones worldwide as of April 2010. Unfortunately, I can’t find US iPhone sales figures. In any case, ATT added a lot of new, heavy data usage subscribers very quickly and wasn’t prepared for it and hasn’t seemed to do much to alleviate the problem. There’ve been some press releases, but I haven’t seen any evidence of improvement in my travels.
ATT 3G performance is so bad that they’ve done two extremely visible things:
- They created an iPhone app, Mark the Spot, which allows customers to report call or data quality problems. It’s too bad they haven’t released any data about its use. Also, I’m surprised that they don’t charge for the app.
- They are going to start selling a microcell device that connects to the customers high-speed internet connection. The customer will have to register each device with the microcell, similar to how you have to set up each computer or other device that you want to connect to your wifi router if it has security settings configured. This is great news, but unfortunately ATT is charging $150 for it. Calls made while connected to the microcell will still count against your monthly limit. However, for another $20 / month, you can get unlimited use while connected to the microcell. Theoretically, calls will be passed seamlessly between the microcell and the regular cell network so that if you start a call at home and then go somewhere the call should continue uninterrupted. It’s unfortunate, but not unexpected that ATT is using their poor 3G service as a tool to extract more money from their customers. If the iPhone were any other phone, it wouldn’t be worth it.
Another piece of evidence that the problem lies with ATT is that they haven’t released any information about any studies that they’ve done to test the issue. The best way to research this problem would be to compare iPhone 3G reception and performance against other heavy data use devices. This could be Android or Pre phones or computers using a 3G broadband dongle. I’m sure that ATT has conducted these tests. It would be foolish not to. One reason that they may not have announced the results is for fear of pissing off Apple, who is increasingly important to their bottom line. Roughly 73% of ATT’s new subscribers are iPhone people who typically spend more on services than other phone users.
In the meantime, I’ve decided that while I’m at home or in range of a wifi network, I’ll disable the 3G network on my phone. This should help preserve battery life and increase the reliability of my phone calls.