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Summary:

After months and months of anticipation, the iPhone 3G is here — and all anyone can talk about are its problems. Theories are emerging as to who — or what — is really to blame, but in some ways the possible explanations are only adding to the mystery.

The iPhone 3G’s problems are a hot topic of discussion these days, with everyone trying to figure out who’s to blame. Is it the fault of the carrier? The software? Or the chips inside the device? While I have a feeling this is really a witches’ brew of all three, the explanations only add to the mystery.

Users are complaining of four basic problems. And notably, they are the same ones that handset makers and carriers in Europe and Asia had to deal with when they started to roll out 3G systems in those regions:

  1. Speed of the 3G network is often not as fast as it should be.
  2. Switching between the EDGE and 3G networks leads to broken web sessions.
  3. For some, the switch between the networks leads to dropped calls.
  4. Weak battery life.

A report on BusinessWeek.com today sheds more light on the issue, though there is still no official comment from Apple. According to the report, the problem is impacting 2-3 percent of iPhone traffic. BW cites an unnamed source who notes that considering 1 percent of AT&T calls get dropped, this is a problem, but not a catastrophe.

AT&T: Network Is Fine

AT&T, displaying a classic head-in-the-sand attitude, issued a statement that said, “Overall, the new iPhone is performing just great on our 3G network.” Right, and overall, the Yankees are on target to win the MLB World Series! If it’s performing so well, why are so many people complaining?

Ask anyone in San Francisco or New York and they will make your ears bleed with their tales of iPhone 3G woes. When we asked our readers about their experience, a majority said they were getting speeds only marginally better than the original iPhone. BW offers some clues as to what the problem might be:

Part of the role of the Infineon chip is to check whether there’s enough 3G bandwidth available in a given area. If 3G isn’t available or there isn’t enough bandwidth, the iPhone will be shifted to a slower network. One source says Apple programmed the Infineon chip to demand a more powerful 3G signal than the iPhone really requires. So if too many people try to make a call or go on the Internet in a given area, some of the devices will decide there’s insufficient power and switch to the slower network—even if there is enough 3G bandwidth available.

Apparently this is resulting in problems in areas of high iPhone density — aka San Francisco, Boston etc. — the very markets where Apple has both a strong retail presence and higher-than-average mind share.

Antenna & Weak Signals

Meanwhile, Swedish magazine Ny Teknik is citing unnamed experts that have come up with yet another theory:

… the most likely cause of the 3G problems is defective adjustments between the antenna and an amplifier that captures very weak signals from the antenna. This could lead to poor 3G connectivity and slower data speeds.

And when I tried to test their theory, it made sense. I currently have three 3G handsets — Nokia E71, Nokia N78 and Sony Ericsson U750a — all of which are optimized for the AT&T 3G network. The speeds on those phones are much faster. Similarly, if I pop a 3G SIM card into one of the USB modems, the speeds on AT&T network are quite fast.

Its the 3G Stupid

Finally there is our friend Mike Puchol, who explains how wireless networks work and outlines some of the problems associated with 3G technologies. In his view, the problem is shared bandwidth:

…key issue to remember is that the download rate is “per tower”, not per user. So, if two users using HSDPA are on the same tower, they will each get a maximum throughput of 3.6Mbps. Divide even further, and the more users you have the worse experience everyone gets.

His explanation also makes sense, and ties in with an earlier post of mine in which I looked at the backhaul problems facing U.S. 3G networks and asked whether or not they’d be able to withstand the iPhone 3G stress test.

I get the feeling that this issue isn’t going to die anytime soon. If you have theories, please share them with us.

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  1. the problem is that they do not have the tower power to handle the load. they didn’t anticipate the massive loads. when the 3g loads are to high you get pushed off to the edge network.

    those applications that everyone downloads is straining 3g. att never thought about this.

  2. “att never thought about this”

    AT&T knew it, gave it a thought and decided they couldn’t give it a toss since before the iPhone it was very hard to monetize data services (to a level similar to voice revenues that is)

  3. Any international perspective on this?

  4. Sorry my comment sounded a bit too harsh to AT&T. Basically until now there has never been the business case to upgrade BTS data transfer capacity. Video calls? Epic Fail. Television on your handset? Epic Fail. So it was rational to wait for a killer app (or device in this case) before actually considering adding capacity.

  5. ¿Es el iPhone un buen teléfono? » El Blog de Enrique Dans Thursday, August 14, 2008

    [...] tan bien, de manera que su uso acaba quedando relegado a otras funciones: no hay más que ver los recientes comentarios sobre el deficiente funcionamiento de la conexión 3G en el último modelo. Interesante, por supuesto, y más teniendo en cuenta que en una reciente [...]

  6. “This is not something that’s high on our radar screen. It’s not something we’ve had a lot of complaints about,” said AT&T’s Mark Siegel.

    What an attitude!

  7. We need Wimax for these devices.

  8. If Om’s Nokia gets high speed, but the iPhone doesn’t (presumably
    close to the same time) then chances are it’s not the network
    but it’s the phone itself.

  9. YEs guys that is the problem here. others who have other 3G devices say they are having no problems. i think it is a combination of both in this case. clearly someone has to step up and give the real story – either apple or ATT. it is not making sense to be treating this as “no problem.”

  10. I’ve got a better idea: sue them. Companies like Apple (as much as I like them and I’m a shareholder) and AT&T make exagerated promises to lure customers into buying their products. Then when they fall short they’re no where to be seen.

    A couple of years ago (and you can search the Giga Om archives) I helped put together a class action suit against Palm for distributing defective Treo phones (they had a buzzing sound and crappy screens). It turned out that Palm new exactly what the problem was but never made it public.

    The good news for its customers was they got to get a new phone.

    I’m sure some lawyers in SV are looking into the situation as we speak.

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