iPhone 3G Issues: The Plot Thickens

60 Comments

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=http://digg.com/apple/iPhone_3G_Issues_The_Plot_Thickens]

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.

60 Comments

Colleen

I think some of the problems the Apple 3g is facing will enable a few competitors to take market share. Palm’s version coming out late spring early summer is a case in point.

gigaom

Shocked to see I have the exact same problem as Mike Elliott above, work in midtown manhattan and problems began on 11th of August. Used to have 3G at my desk and phone worked well, after the 14th Edge or no service at desk and phone hangs while trying to retrieve mail. Internet service spotty at best.

VShipe

Shocked to see I have the exact same problem as Mike Elliott above, work in midtown manhattan and problems began on 11th of August. Used to have 3G at my desk and phone worked well, after the 14th Edge or no service at desk and phone hangs while trying to retrieve mail. Internet service spotty at best.

Judy

I have a Treo 750 3G which I am returning today. I never had the same problems with my 680. My 750 drops calls continuously. I believe the issue is the 3G network, not just the iPhone.

Eddie

Om,

I need your help big time (and I think my question will also help other people who will encounter the same situation). I am betwixt and between the Nokia E71 and the N78. Since I don’t need to bang out a lot of text messages or emails, the N78 ought to be great (I love the look and functionality of this little phone not only 3G but I LOVE that it has WiFi too!). Hence, N78 lacking a QWERTY keyboard is fine for me.

But (and this is the big but!) after doing hours of research, I finally discovered something very disturbing with the N78 (and also to affect the forthcoming N96) which is that Nokia has very quietly and seemingly sneakily redacted their built-in VoIP / SIP implementation in all phones that come with Symbian Series 60 3rd generation Feature Pack 2 (otherwise abbreviated as S60 3.2). Check it out, its true:

http://discussion.forum.nokia.com/forum/showthread.php?p=456510

> If you look at the VoIP supported devices
> http://www.forum.nokia.com/main/resources/technologies/voice_over_IP/voip_support_in_nokia_devices.html
> the N78 is not listed.
>
> I think you need to return it and exchange it for a different device
> that is supported.
>
> Ron

> I’ve gone back to my E65 for now – maybe I’ll buy an N78 when they
> release a full version of Symbian on this platform.
>
> It’s an interesting point about Android – will Symbian end up going down
> the same path as Amiga and other technologies that have disappeared? If
> they persist in deliberately crippling their OS (e.g. disabling VoIP)
> and frustrating the end user, they can’t hope to do much better.

Om, this is a travesty. Its akin to bait and switch because clearly from the table at the URL pointing to the Nokia Forum page about which devices are supported with Noia’s VoIP built-in software, N series devices such as N80 Internet Edition, N95, N95 8G, N81 8G and N82 all have VoIP implementation. So what is up? Nokia says to the world for quite some time, “hey guys forget the iPhone look at us, we will provide a VoIP client for most of our N Series” and now that the N Series becomes popular and they sell millions, they turn around and say “ha ha ha, now we are going to take away that VoIP software because the wireless telecos told us to, so screw you customer who wants VoIP”!

What this means? It means that Gizmo5 and Truphone won’t work on the N78 and forthcoming N96 even though you can buy the N78 (and soon N96) unlocked and unbranded at the Nokia Flagship stores in the U.S. in Chicago and New York. Yesterday I called the Chicago Nokia Flagship store and a very well informed employee said that the Truphone guys were visiting the Chicago flagship store not long ago and Truphone duly pointed out that N78 breaks Truphone because the Nokia VoIP support has been redacted!

So what is up with this? Obviously the E71 is also a very new phone, just about as new as the N98, and if you look at that table, the E71 includes VoIP support (VoIP Release 2.3 “100.07.76”). I think the E71 is a nice machine but I really want the N78 and with all these bells and whistles of 3G, WiFi, etc. why on earth can’t the N78 also have Nokia’s VoIP release?

Finally, I will pose this very important question: does this move by Nokia really appear to be the type of move that is indicative of a culture shift towards open source per the Symbian Foundation? Google is already culturally rooted in open source (its entire infrastructure runs on Linux clusters). I am not so confident about Nokia’s ability to shift to open source (just like Sun has had such a hard time — Sun has had cultural headwinds from the beginning thus look at the immense difficulty Java has had in becoming truly open and unwrested from the controls of Sun dating back to the McNealy / Baratz era)! I haven’t looked yet to see if Android will include a SIP / VoIP implementation but I sure hope it does as it would be in the true spirit of the Internet even though everyone and her sister knows that the mobile teleco oligarchies don’t like VoIP (but who cares what people do with their WiFi connections Nokia come on!).

Please Om, can you do anything to help? Can you ask some of the higher ups at Nokia what is up with this? After all, I want to drop several HUNDRED dollars on the beautiful N78 instead of an iPhone so doesn’t Nokia want a customer like me (who also wants to use Gizmo and Fring and Truphone when I want to over WiFi)?

Thank you for anything you check into on this topic!

Dave Brown

I’ve had more dropped calls and slower service on 3G than I did iPhone 1.0.
And did I mention the battery life sucks? Great that Apple acknowledged it’s MobileMe mess. Now I hope they clean up their iPhone act.

Hal

I’ve been reading through all the comments and didn’t see any input from anyone who uses the ATT 3G network from a laptop – i.e., NOT via an iPhone but through a cellular modem like a Sierra Wireless card.

I am such a user – I frequently access the 3G network from my laptop and have been doing so since the 3G network was introduced.

My experience: prior to July 2008, I was quite happy with download speeds. Since early July, however, I’ve experienced frequent service slowdowns, especially during weekday working hours (M-F, approx 10-6). During such slowdowns, which last for a few minutes to several hours, I experience frequent network timeouts and very slow download speeds (much slower than 2G).

I am based in Silicon Valley; it seems like these network performance issues are much more likely to occur when I’m in Cupertino (near Apple HQ!) than in other locations I’ve been recently (downtown San Jose or Sacramento).

I’ve placed service calls with AT&T.. I eventually got them to admit that they’ve been having problems with the 3G network. I asked for and received a two-month credit on my bill.

Sajith

Om,
Bottom line is that iPhone 3G is a defective product despite all the apple hype – why are you not focusing on this? Your comparison with the Nokia phones proves it. I think this needs loud media attention – noticed the spin about ATT 3G network issues.

Andrew

I realize it’s just anecdotal,but since the 15th, 3g in Philadelphia has been nearly unusable – minute plus long page load times with full signal. Turn 3g off and load times are 1/5 on EDGE. It wasn’t always this bad. I’ve confirmed similar behavior with two other users in my area

Vectorpedia

I heard dropped calls is a big problem that Apple can’t seem to resolve………I think I will wait until they correct all the problems before buying a unit.

Zach S.

I have horrible problems with my iphone 3G. I bought it in Pasadena, only to find when I returned to my sisters house (where I was visiting and, and in 5 days be moving to for the next year) I found out that her neighborhood only received “Good” 3G coverage. Apparently Good coverage means that data works, but you can’t place a call without it being dropped a minute into the conversation. Literally 75% of the calls I tried to make the week after I got the phone were dropped.

Then I returned to Ann Arbor, MI, only to find that my phone won’t work in my apartment either. If someone calls me, I have to run outside before the call gets dropped. Also, my battery won’t last me through the day. I ivariably have to plug it in around 10-11pm at night.

I went to the Apple Store today to get new iphone headphones (my first ones blew out within a week of use, and all I use them for is to listen to podcasts) and I asked an employee about my problems. The solution she gave me was to disable the 3G network and only use EDGE, and to disable Bluetooth connectivity. So in other words, turn off two of the major reasons I bought the phone. Awesome.

The iPhone 3G is easily the worst phone I have ever owned.

Joshua R.

Just initiated a speed test on my iPhone on testmyiphone.com.

DOWNLOAD SPEED
4.89 Mbps – Wifi

1.02 Mbps – 3g 5 times faster than edge

UPLOAD SPEED
.24 Mbps – 3g 5.42 times faster than edge

Just checked a national database for speed test taken all over the world.

Germany Avg. 3g speed 1.37 Mbps
U.S. Avg 3g speed 2.08

then it gets astronomically slow in Australia, Brazil, Etc. So there definitely is a problem going on Even Japan who has great 3g is slow. So the question is why in America and Germany have such excellent times with the exact same hardware? Apple has to figure this out quickly!

rodrigo

I’ve had an iPhone for two weeks. The first week was great. This past week (and especially the last few days) it has been a worthless piece of junk. Safari won’t load pages and email just hangs forever saying “connecting”.

My friends who also have iPhones in various neighborhoods throughout NYC report the same issues. If the performance stays like this the phone (as nice as it is) will have to go back.

ToughGuy

Simple fix to this that I have noticed and remembered from past discussions with ATT tech support on othe phones is to turn the phone off, and leave off for more than 1 minute…this releases its connection with the cell tower that it has, when you turn it back on, it will search out the strongest tower and connect into that…it appears to work well…hopefully this will temporarily solve some peoples issues..

good luck

Joshua R

I think this article is somewhat fabricated. I have owned Treo’s, Blackberry Pearls/Curves, HTC Tilt. The iPhone 3g is by far the best phone I have ever owned. I live in Minneapolis Minnesota and travel all over the world, and my phone rarely goes under 4 bars. Needs a better camera, better battery life and a few other things but hands down the best phone I have ever used!

John S

I really don’t think its the chip completely, although I remember some people complaining a little about signal
with the first iPhone. Back then many thought the metal back had some affect on signal. This could be why plastic was used in the 2nd edition. I am still amazed how many people expect Apple to have exceptional quality hardware when in fact I really do not see this in any of their products. Apple has the same quality problems as any other electronics maker and the plus is they usually do better at service then the rest.
Apple hurts itself by putting such a high expectation on its products that when even the smallest flaw come out it Apple gets negative feedback. If you judge the network its obvious many non iPhone user’s don’t like AT&T service. I myself had to quit AT&T for the simple fact I kept losing signal at home.
Sometimes the service is just not there no matter what phone it is.

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