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Why Won’t AT&T Admit to Its Wireless Network Problems?

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ref_iphone3g_pairLast summer, when Apple (s AAPL) introduced its 3G iPhone device, I brought up the issue of AT&T (s T) not being ready for the data usage brought on by the data-centric touchscreen phone. Company officials of course denied having such problems, assuring me that they were ready.

Ready or not, a lot of people signed up for AT&T’s service, and many were soon disappointed by the lack of backhaul bandwidth. For me personally it got so bad, that I switched away from the iPhone (which I love, by the way) to T-Mobile’s 8900 BlackBerry and a plain old phone from Verizon.

AT&T keeps denying that it has any network bandwidth problems and continued its state of denial in an article in the New York Times this past weekend. Kristin S. Rinne, senior VP of architecture and planning for AT&T, blamed the phones and the chipsets on handsets for some of the problems.

Bad news for them – the article coincided with the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival, which is attended by hordes of iPhone-totting early-adopter techies. AT&T’s network choked and suddenly everyone was up in arms. And then Ma Bell got in touch with Stacey, who reported that AT&T was boosting its network capacity.

How did they do this? By switching on 850 MHz band on eight cell towers to blanket the downtown Austin area. This was in addition to the existing capacity on the 900 1900 MHz band. AT&T is going to make the same arrangements in San Francisco and New York by end of 2009, AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega told Engadget.

This move to fix the bandwidth issue is a clear sign that AT&T knows it has network problems. It is time for the company to step up and acknowledge that this is indeed the case, and make a clear and coherent statement on how it is fixing it. By not doing so, it is clearly selling 3G phones (iPhone and BlackBerry Bold) under false pretenses. I think this is where the new FCC should step up to the plate and force their hand!

137 Responses to “Why Won’t AT&T Admit to Its Wireless Network Problems?”

  1. I have the original iPhone and I love the gadget itself but the AT&T service is terrible. I live in Cleveland and had Verizon service prior to getting the iPhone. I rarely dropped calls and now, with the AT&T service, I am constantly dropping calls and the load rate for data is so slow. I feel like I am not using the decive to its full potential because of the service attached with it. I hope AT&T steps up to the plate and fixes their issues.

    • Brian Kapprell

      Nicole-the same is happening down here in Cincinnati, Ohio too. I have a 3G Nokia. The AT&T service here is horrible too. I am constantly getting dropped calls, static and interference when I make a call, missed voice mails, and poor reception. This is all near downtown Cincinnati. It’s ridiculous!! Download rates are NOT 3G that’s for sure. I have called customer service at least 4 times about these problems and they claim that they will be fixed, but I don’t see anything changing with them.

  2. I think AT&T is like GM. Their executives are out of touch. Their lower level staff make sure that there is adequate towers and coverage by their residences, along the way they commute to their executive suites at corp and in the building. Network problems? Kristin and De La Vega never experience it, because they are using their phones in a bubble of coverage.

    Sort of like when the GM execs only rode around in limos and had no clue about the actual cars they sold.

    The other aspect of this is refusing to build adequate infrastructure for the service they are selling. Sort of like Comcast, who spends millions advertising the speed of their network, attacking the slowness of DSL and then using sandvine and bandwidth caps on their own customers. Rolling out Docsis 3.0 for faster speeds, so that you can reach you bandwidth cap sooner.

    If the iPhone were on Verizon I would switch back to them, presuming they (Verizon) did not put any restrictions on the feature of the iPhone like they constantly did with every motorola phone I used with them.

  3. If AT&T admits their problems then they will be in serious trouble with customer lawsuits. Secondly not everything is there problem. The iPhoen 3G has major 3G issues and AT&T and Apple keeps blaming each other for it.

  4. I still have the original iPhone. I didn’t upgrade last summer with everyone else because I didn’t want to sell my soul to AT&T for another 2 years. I live in the Cincinnati area and I have terrible service. No service in my home and not until I’m almost out of my neighborhood. Constant dropped calls. It’s awful. As much as I like so many features of the phone, it’s just not practical. When my contract is up this summer, I’m switching to an Android or Palm Pre. I’ve had Spring and T-Mobile in the past without issue. Truthfully, when I had my Blackberry with Cingular (just before the AT&T switch), I had fantastic service. Go figure.

    • Brian Kapprell

      Michelle-I live in the Anderson Township area of Cincinnati and AT&T’s service here is horrible too. I have a Nokia 3G phone and am constantly having dropped calls, poor voice quality where there is static and interference in the line, poor reception, missed voice mails, and slow internet downloads. It’s ridiculous. I am leaving them too when my contract is up. I have a friend who lives in Mt. Lookout and he is having the same problems I am. In fact, there is a dead zone along Linwood Rd. When AT&T bought Cingular back, the service went downhill almost immediately. I noticed that, along with many other people. They need to get a clue at AT&T or they will lose a ton of customers.

  5. david m

    Right on, I live in No AZ and 3G does not exist. Retailers of IPhones and Blackberries have no clue as to when we will get the service. And unless you ask the retailer will not divulge that lack of 3G. Scandelous.

  6. I’ve had all these issues with my Blackjack on AT&T, and secretly wondered whether “it all just works” on the iPhone, simply b/c iPhone users are more prone to gush than whine about the gadget. Glad to see other folks have issues with the network, even with the carrier’s flagship iPhone device.

  7. I completely agree and am so glad to read some publicity about this. I have almost thrown my iPhone out the window on my daily commute between San Fran and the peninsula–it drops calls about three times during that drive. My old Treo with Sprint never dropped calls. I really hope AT&T fixes this issue before I lose patience.

    • Good! You and anyone else should NOT be using a cell phone whilst driving (“oh oh, but I’m different, I can drive better when I’m yapping on my cell phone that when I’m not!”).

      If had a dime for every time a damn cager almost ran me off the road as they were BSing on their phones I’d buy Apple Inc. for myself.

  8. im tired of having to apologize to clients when my phone just drops b/c at&t’s service gets tired and cuts out…i love the iphone and think that it is the best pda on the market (personally) but i have thought about switching recently b/c at&t is shite

  9. Myron Parks

    I have plain 3G wireless for my laptop for at&t and I will say that the service is irresponsible. I work downtown Chicago across the street from Millenium Park and my 3G access has been out since the 4th of February. I use my 3G connection 90% of the time when I’m at work. It’s the reason I got it in the first place and it has been horrible.

    If their network sucks, then advertise is more conservatively so that people can be informed adults when signing a contract. Their solution? Lock it into 2G service and we’ll give you your money back when we get the service back up.

    Because of this network trouble, my school life has been turned upside-down and now I have all of my personal email tracked in my employer’s big brother snooping system.

  10. satish sharma


    I have read your issue with 3G service, but it doesn’t add up – if ATT doesn’t have 3G capacity why is your BB working fine. I think the issue is iphone and partially ATT.

  11. Nicholas

    BTW, this also why we embed media in our apps rather than stream. Relying on a network, particularly ATT’s, for the user experience is insane!

  12. Nicholas

    Randal, I have to agree and wonder how one can be in the center of the third largest US city, and have no cell service. Zero bars! I was at a client’s in the west loop, facing downtown, and unable to check my email. Bizarre!

    • Yes sadly I live in the west loop. Imagine that. I don’t really get service until I drive out! I have to fine the one corner of my house that I can use the phone. I have been seriously considering unlocking the phone to go with tmobile. I had a great experience with them!

  13. Randal Burgess

    I can only give the example that AT&T 3G service on Chicago’s Northside is god-awful. It’s basically dead along the CTA Brown Line and never works near the Depaul campus, which is probably due to the high density of students. I don’t live around tall buildings (Lake View), so there’s no excuse there, either.

    I hate the economics of class-action lawsuits, but this is probably one issue (AT&T’s failure to provide promised service under long term contracts) that I’d be interested in joining. If AT&T can’t provide me the network as prescribed, then they should let me take my phone to a different carrier or give me a refund.

    I love the iPhone, but the 3G failures are killing the experience. In the end, I don’t care about the price. I just want to get what I’m paying for.

  14. absolutgcs

    it’s entirely possible that it has nothing to do with backhaul capacity and everything to do with network complexity exacerbated by the iphone’s absence of background processing. how are the two related? well, without background processing, every time you start a new app, you potentially have to startup and tear down a new session between the phone and the GGSN/SGSN. with background processing, you could have apps maintain the statefulness of their connection, thus preventing a lot of set-ups and tear-downs. the real enemy of IP cell networks is chatty apps that open a session, shut it down, then open it up again and repeat this ad nauseum. when you think of the SXSW iphone crowd switching from twitter to yelp to urbanspoon to maps apps and on and on, you can see how this could be a problem. the handset chipsets (their firmwares) could also be at fault in their implementation of the radio protocol by initiating fast dormancy too quickly to try to conserve battery.

    this makes some assumptions about how the iphone handles network connectivity (on a per app basis) but it’s not unreasonable given the app model.

  15. I have AT&T and Verizon. I travel around the Northeast all day for work. I have a spotty AT&T service and Verizon. They both have problems. I live in NYC and have no problems with my 3G signal.

  16. To me the question is more fundamental. “Will there ever be enough bandwidth in mobile?”. The iPhone is just the first hot mobile data device. Many more are on the way. 3G built into laptops and netbooks morphing into smaller and more mobile data gluttons.

    Cisco predicts mobile data usage to grow 130% annually, leading to a 66-fold increase between 2008 and 2013 (Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update). Reasons for this explosion in mobile data usage are
    – Smart phones are quickly going mainstream and have sufficient CPU power to run applications that hitherto were limited to PCs
    – Many data-intensive internet services already exist for PCs (e.g. YouTube)
    – Laptops that go wireless use 15x more data than smart phones

    We are dealing with limited spectrum and an enormously expensive infrastructure. Maybe it never catches up?

  17. PierreBtwork up her

    I am Canadian and my iPhone is on the Candian Rogers\Fido here. Been travelling a lit of bit of late to the US and Europe.

    From my perspective, the AT&T network is clearly inferior.

  18. AT&T can only use 850mhz and 1900mhz. 900mhz can’t be used in the US, it’s for Europe. Typo?

    It also brings up the question… why wasn’t AT&T using the 850mhz band before?

    • Chad Estes

      They were supposed to overlay 850mhz by December ’08, but haven’t even turned on one tower until SXSW called them on it. I have no idea why they haven’t. Lubbock, Dallas and San Antonio all have 850mhz. Why not Austin, the capitol of Texas???

      • Jerry Fleckhiemer

        First of all they have to own 850 in that market to turn it on. Second, Austin came secondhand into SBC a while back from a 1900 carrier with CDMA. So, if they got it, they will use it. 850 was picked up during the AT&T Wireless acquisition, so its available and should be using it. Other than asking one of their RF guys, customers will never know the difference. All AT&T phones a quad-band.

  19. AT&T continues to ignore my service calls that there is very poor coverage near where I live (2 miles south of downtown denver). All they say is “our maps show your area’s coverage as ‘good.'”

    Well it isn’t! They have no interest in solving the problem, if their map says coverage is good, them god-dammit it’s good! ….despite the fact that calls consistently drop all around my neighborhood for me and other AT&T customers.

    this is a nice idea:

    • AT&T’s service in Denver is atrocious! I have a friend that lives at about 12th and Washington and I’ve not had ANY service at his house in that last year at least. I’ve called AT&T and all they can say is “Weird, that’s in the middle of six towers!?” That doesn’t mean I get any connection to the network though!

  20. But I am not defending AT&T, they willingly agree to carry the iPhone and must deal with the added traffic.

    When the Pre and other hot smartphones come out there will be less iPhones and data usage will be more spread out.

  21. You have to figure the iPhone on the AT&T network is overloading the network. Verizon has no mass traffic from geeks since no hot device.

    If you think for a moment that if the iPhone ran on Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon San Francisco the mecca for geeks would not have trouble…

    I mean the ratio of iPhones at SXSW if great, greater the any other hot smartphone.

  22. I’m not an iPhone owner ($80/month is to much) but I do use AT&Ts 3G services. I’ve never had a complaint about spee. But I’ve had the spotty connection issue. Why is it that my home in the suburbs has 3.5G capabilities, but when I’m near downtown (mind you not many tall buildings around) I can only get EDGE? Very frustrating, it has me wondering about getting a Dream HTC instead of an iPhone.

  23. I completely agree with Om on this one. I’ve been hoping/waiting for better coverage since I first switched to AT&T so I could buy/use an iPhone. The 3G coverage in San Francisco is horrible. In New York it’s even worse. 3G is spotty in Manhattan and you can forget about getting a 3G signal at the SoHo Apple Store or Times Square.
    I’m considering picking up a Blackberry on another network…

    • Chad Estes

      New York’s network, for me, was great on the iPhone. San Fran’s was not as good, in my opinion, but was far better than the horrendous network in Austin, TX.

      I’ve been to New York, San Francisco, Dallas, San Antonio, Las Vegas Houston and other cities, and have never found a network so lacking in 3G coverage as Austin. I work in downtown, and about 1/4th of the time don’t even have a 3G signal. On my drive home, down Mopac (the major highway in Austin along with I-35) and through South Austin I lose my 3G signal at least 5 times, dropping calls and canceling data connections. It is incredibly frustrating, and I’ve complained to my state representative and the FCC. All I get from the AT&T office of the president is that ‘they cannot guarantee coverage.’

      Give me a break. This isn’t a guaranteed coverage issue, this is a sham of a network that needed to be fixed years ago.

      • Stupac

        I’m a fellow Austinite and about to pull all my hair out with all the dropped calls I get here. Would you share the phone numbers you called for the state rep and the FCC? I’ll pass it to my other distressed iphoners and we’ll voice our discontent. Much thanks!

      • Brian Kapprell

        Yeah, I agree. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio and it’s that way here too-spotty coverage, dropped calls, static in the line, etc. Their map shows coverage in these areas, but yet it seems to always go out there…. interesting!! Their maps are very inaccurate and their reps are liars.

    • Me and my wife switched to ATT so I could get the iphone and she has the palm centro. We live in Houston close to downtown. We both have signal fluctuations between 3G and the Edge network, dropped calls and poor call quality (the persons voice seems garbled). So it is not just an Iphone issue. I can sit outside without moving and the signal is all over the place. I payed for 3G and that is what I should get. Recently I received a text from ATT stating: ATT has the largest network in houston. I wish I could have replied, yeah but it sucks.

      • Sorry that you think that you paid for 3G. You paid for the svc not for 3G. If you get it, great if not then you have to deal with the EDGE network. Move north and see how much you pay for cell svc.