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Summary:

Will the AT&T network collapse under the weight of photo-happy iPhone users sending MMS messages? That’s the crucial question behind today’s launch of picture messaging capability on the AT&T network, which has been dogged by criticism since the first iPhone launch. Despite the explanatory video offered […]

iphones1Will the AT&T network collapse under the weight of photo-happy iPhone users sending MMS messages? That’s the crucial question behind today’s launch of picture messaging capability on the AT&T network, which has been dogged by criticism since the first iPhone launch. Despite the explanatory video offered up earlier this month by “Seth the Blogger Guy,” which outlined “preparing radio access controllers” and “calibrating base stations all over the country,” sending photos over the iPhone today may not go smoothly.

According to Karl Bode over at DSLReports, AT&T is justifiably nervous. Sources have told him that the carrier estimates traffic will be 40 percent higher on the network as AT&T users get the MMS capability they’ve long been denied. (For AT&T users without the iPhone, this means you, too!) But the network has to work, something Bode’s sources doubt:

According to the source, AT&T is “very” nervous about the launch and is requesting their MMS aggregator partners provide hourly updates on any message delays or problems. AT&T and its MMS partners are already seeing “record traffic during peak hours of the night” with just the users selected for testing.

That early testing has been a little rocky, with AT&T seeing a fairly significant test outage yesterday that has them rushing to beef up their MMSC messaging servers.

Sending an MMS message is different than making a voice call or even accessing data from the Internet. In those cases, the phone sends digital packets over the cell network to either the web — to call on a server, as is the case with data — or to a piece of equipment that will connect it to the circuit switched network in order to call a landline or cell phone. With MMS and SMS messages, the text or photo info is actually sent over the cell network to an AT&T data center.

Once there, a server validates and stores the message. Then it pushes out a notification to the recipient of the message, which contains the sender’s info and a URL to access the content on the server. When the recipient clicks to receive the image, it’s sent. The ability to store the content and wait a bit to push it out to recipients is one reason that texts and MMS can work in a disaster situation, when voice circuit networks are overloaded. Texts may arrive late, but they should get there. So unlike voice calls, there’s a heavy data center component to the MMS capability.

However, Seth Bloom (yes, the guy in the video) emailed me this morning to say, “We expect it to go well today. As previously mentioned, we expect the feature to result in strong usage and record volumes, which is why we took the time to prepare our network so that customers would have an excellent experience from day one.”

Those steps include the aforementioned radio access upgrades, adding MMS-processing servers inside AT&T data centers, adding more cell towers, and allocating the 850 MHz spectrum in major cities to the 3G network — something that was fairly successful at the South By Southwest Interactive show in Austin this year (it had other problems, namely that because of a deal with the city of Austin, only Sprint was allowed to have its cell gear inside the convention center where SxSW is held, which forced AT&T and other providers to set up their towers farther away).

As AT&T gears up to turn on MMS later this morning on the West Coast and early afternoon on the East Coast, like any web startup about to launch, the carrier is primarily counting on its servers.

  1. all this time I thought Seth Bloom was just some actor ATT hired to shoot that video!! Will be testing ATT’s network all day today with hourly MMS to friends!!

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  2. [...] at GigaOM goes into more detail about how MMS and SMS work compared to regular voice calls. She concludes that the true linchpin factor in today’s [...]

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  3. MMS VERSUS SMS VERSUS VOICE: HOW INFORMATION FLOWS

    This is a great explanation of the difference between how information flows over the mobile networks in the case of:

    (1) text

    Mobile phone —-> data center’ —> Mobile phone

    (2) voice

    Mobile phone —> telco equipment (then over circuit switched network) —-> Mobile phone

    (3) MMS

    Mobile phone —> data center —-> Mobile phone

    The question is: with increasing use of packet-based communication, when will voice communication use the same type of data flow (i.e., avoid the circuit switched network and run completely over the internet which is a packet-based network)?

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  4. Australia, as far as I’m aware, has had no problems with MMS on the iPhone. But then, the iPhone isn’t locked to just one telecommunications company. Telstra, Optus, Virgin etc all sell iPhones or iPhone plans. Why does the US persist with a monopoly?
    (Mind you, Australia has has GSM for some time)

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  5. [...] A quick power down/ on of the phone and MMS is now active. I’m now going to do my share to bring the AT&T network down now. I can’t do it alone so you iPhone owners get MMS working and join my [...]

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  6. The ATT network is not holding up now. It’s hard to break something which is already broken.

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  7. [...] the iPhone. Stacey at GigaOM pondered this morning whether AT&T’s network will be able to handle the crush of iPhoners sending videos and pictures to one another, and over at TheAppleBlog comes word that [...]

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  8. [...] By Jennifer Martinez | Friday, September 25, 2009 | 6:00 PM PT | 0 comments Yfrog now lets you send photos and video to Twitter via an MMS message on the iPhone, which is in accordance with the Apple device’s new MMS capability going live today. [...]

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  9. [...] at GigaOM goes into more detail about how MMS and SMS work compared to regular voice calls. She concludes that the true linchpin factor in today’s [...]

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  10. [...] making MMS available on the iPhone is big news – something for which its users have clamored. Of course, AT&T isn’t the only carrier that [...]

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