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iPhone 3G Issues: The Plot Thickens

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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. [digg=]

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 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.

60 Responses to “iPhone 3G Issues: The Plot Thickens”

  1. someone from far asia

    It’s obviously a problem with the MNO and how 3G works. The more the ppl are on one tower the 3G coverage shrinks; that’s my basic (limited) understanding of 3G. Maybe a RF engineer could help better explain it technically.

  2. canadian

    I am in Canada too, Vancouver B.C on Rogers network, no problems thus far. 3G at 4 bars now almost 5. I think its something with your network in U.S AT&T.

  3. My 3G iPhone works great most of the time but I do end up getting really slow to almost none existent download speeds from around 5pm until 6:30pm on weekdays which happens to coincide with rush hour.

    The iPhone is registering a good signal during the slow period but I believe that it is a matter of bandwidth not being available to me rather than some problem with the hardware or antenna.

    My provider is Fido and I’m from Victoria,BC in Canada.

  4. As a wireless data infrastructure engineer for a large enterprise, I can sympathize with AT&T – they don’t have control over the way that all of the various 3g radio makers and 3g radio software writers decide to implement their side. The handset and software authors each decide independently what kind of antenna, chipset, amplifier, and radio senstivity they will implement, as well as when their unit will roam, or when it will data rate shift, or fall back to a slower network. As the article states – the network may be fine, but if the phone decides it doesn’t want to use 3G, or wants to run 3G but at a reduced data rate, the network can’t ‘force’ it to use the extra capacity that exists.

    We see this all the time in our enterprise wireless data network – two units from different manufacturers right next to each other:

    Unit One won’t roam and is talking back to a ‘tower’ half the world away & performs well anyway due to a quality radio.

    Unit Two has grabbed a ‘tower’ right next to it but is barely hanging on to the network due to poor antenna design.

    All the ‘towers’ are configured the same.

  5. joshua taylor

    my 3G works great, the device on whole works great. my only complaint is with instabilities with mobileme. also.. it’s a game of statistics. i don’t know how many people are complaining but if it’s under 5% of the overall iphone 3G users, then AT&T is completely in the right to say that the device is performing well.

  6. From a Canadian perspective, the only explanation that makes sense is the first one – either there is something wrong with AT&T’s network, or there is somme issue between it and the iPhone.

    I live in Vancouver BC, a city very similar in Apple demographics to San Fran … and neither I nor any of my iPhone-toting friends and coworkers have had issues with dropped 3G calls, etc. At least not that we’ve noticed on a day to day basis. Same goes for friends I’ve spoken to in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto.

  7. Thomas Mck

    Just go to Apple discussion groups for the iPhone, it’s all over the place, thousands upon thousands of complaints about both the original iPhone (upgraded to 2.0+) and 3g iPhones. Everything went to hell after they released 2.0 and the new iPhones on the market.

    Now our phones are complete crap and Apple has told their reps to DENY, DENY, DENY, so that it’s always the end users fault. A class action lawsuit will probably emerge soon and take Apple down about 10 notches.

  8. In response to the backhaul issue that has been brought up, the answer will come from a combo of newly deployed fiber lines and WiMax. While problems persist in the 3G market, companies are already ramping up for 4G and LTE. On the WiMax side you have companies ( , )that produce radios operating in the millimeter wave spectrum (70GHz-80GHz)That can carry 1Gbps and are currently developing 10Gbps technology. So the technology is there, it is simply a matter of the Telco’s putting up the capital expense to make the change. You have to keep in mind that just 10 years ago cell phone coverage was very limited. the Telco’s put out a lot of money to deploy what is up and running now and I would imagine they wanna milk all the ROI they can out of what is already running before they dig back into their pockets for the upgrade.

  9. My Iphone with Telstra in Australia rocks! Just tested with; 1.3mbps down/0.25 Mbps up. Solild, reliable. Most other users of telstra have great speeds to (see the test results)

    Optus on the other hand in OZ has lots of users with problems.

    So, I suspect there is somesort of phone/network compatability issue there…

  10. anonymous

    Om, it will be interesting to get comments from following companies:

    1. Qualcomm

    2. NT

    3. NSN, Ericsson, ALU (probably predictable)

    4. Intel (on how would WiMax perfom ??)

  11. As a SoftBank customer in Japan I can say that my experience has been positive in general with regards to speed, quality of calls, etc. Battery life naturally could be better. Crashing for me has been limited to the NY Times app.

  12. I hate to tell ya, but I have an “old” (ca. Feb 2008) iPhone, and around the time of the release for the 3G, I started having all kinds of problems with my connection. Calls were dropped all the time, and my phone would skip between 1 bar and 5.

    I can’t say if this was a result of the added load of all the new 3G customer, or if AT&T made some sort of change to their network around that time, or if it was my own upgrade to firmware 2.0. (The 2.0.1 firmware hasn’t fixed it.) At the same time, my phone started getting hung all the time, taking 5-20 seconds to register routine inputs on the screen.

    I took my phone to the Apple store and they exchanged it, although they said that if it persists (as it has) I should go to AT&T to swap my SIM card for a new one.

    To add an additional twist to the story, I’m currently visiting Chicago from my home 40 mi. east of LA. At home, my Edge connection is slow but generally usable. Here in Chicago, the network data connection is incredibly slow and unstable, even in the heart of downtown with a strong AT&T connection. My mother just got a 3G and is utterly frustrated with the (lack) of data connection as well, to the point where she told me, “if AT&T and Apple don’t fix this in the next 25 days, I’m canceling my plan and going back to Sprint.”

    Ugh. Whether it’s AT&T, Apple, or both, I do hope they get their act together!

  13. I have a 3g iphone sitting next to my Nokia E71; The iphone constantly stays at 1-2 3g bars and my new and powerful E71 is always at full bars and sometimes reads 3.5G within my house. IT’S THE PHONE! I like the idea of my iphone but I seem to be shelving it of late due to it not being reliable. It may be going back to Apple within the week for refund.

  14. What mystery? In a rush to get product to market Apple dropped the ball on quality control. Hardly the first time that has happened to Apple or anyone else for that matter.

  15. Mike Elliott

    From what I’ve seen here in NYC and on my 3G iPhone, I’ll have to say it’s a combination of AT&T’s network and the iPhone hardware.

    I work in midtown and up until this week at my desk I had full bars on the 3G network, and surfing the web was quick. Then halfway through Monday I noticed I was on Edge. I toggled the 3G switch on and on in settings, and got right back on the 3G network. I look down about 30 mins later, and it’s back on Edge. I tried toggling the 3G switch again, but for the rest of the day it would drop back down to Edge a little while after I did it. This kept continuing all week.

    The other problem was that if I started to go online while the phone said it was on 3G, it would load very slowly, then drop down to Edge, then that app would stall while the network spinner kept spinning. I know it can work fine in Edge since I was in an area that was all Edge and the phone was slow, but worked fine.

    Then today I decided to eat lunch a few block over closer to the UN. I went to check my email on my iPhone and I was in full 3G, and I was back to DSL like speeds. However, not long after I back to my desk it’s back to Edge.

    After checking online I found Wired’s test of the iPhone speeds. (

    Checking the speeds around work showed that other people where getting speeds around .06 MBS off of 3G, yet people in other areas of NYC were up to 1 MBS and above. (I tired to run, but the page timed out on my phone.)

    I don’t make too many calls so I can’t attest to the dropped calls, but from what I have seen it definitely looks like the network, in midtown at least, is overloaded and the phone can’t handle the step down to Edge if it is in the middle of a connection.

    I still love my iPhone, but it’s frustrating to have suddenly lose functionality. I just hope it can be fixed by firmware, the lines iPhone service are ridiculous here.

  16. Mike Cerm

    As bad as the 2.0 firmware was, I’d say you’d have to look at Apple first, before you start blaming AT&T. 2.0.1 is a huge improvement, but Safari still crashes all the time, the entire phone freezes several times a day (for me anyway), so there’s still a lot more bugs to work out on the software side.

    Considering Apple’s bad firmware, and very little evidence of other handsets from other manufacturers having similar problems, it’s pretty clear who’s to blame. I used to get a nice strong signal when I had an old, beat up Nokia. With the iPhone, I get 1 bar where there used to be 4 bars, and “No Service” in places where the Nokia was at 1 or 2 bars. It’s really bad.

    Between the bugs, dropped calls, and terrible reception, if I actually needed to rely on my phone for business, there’s no way I could keep the iPhone. It’s way more unreliable than any Nokia or WinMo phone I’ve ever had. Since I mainly use it for web-browsing, and it doesn’t matter if I miss a few calls here and there, I can tolerate the iPhone.

    The browser is nice, and I like Pandora, but the iPhone is without a doubt the worst *phone* I’ve ever had. If there aren’t any good Android handsets by next year, I’ll probably go back to my old Nokia, and pick up a little netbook for browsing.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.”

  19. 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.

  20. “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!

  21. Rodolfo

    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.

  22. Rodolfo

    “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)

  23. 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.