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Like AT&T, O2 Feels the Strain, but Doesn’t Whine About iPhone Customers

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Shortly before Christmas, my iPhone started misbehaving. I’d get an odd little notification message popping up on the screen telling me it “Could not activate cellular data network.” Despite not usually getting odd little errors on the iPhone, I didn’t worry too much about it. After all, I assumed, it is the holiday season; people are calling family and friends more than at any other time (well, except, perhaps, for New Year’s Eve). I just assumed it would right itself.

24 hours later it was still misbehaving, but by that time I’d finally snapped and decided to look into it. A call to O2 resulted in a recorded message that was played before the usual welcome message; “We are experiencing some difficulties,” an overly sympathetic voice cooed, “We apologize to our customers for any inconvenience this might have caused.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course).

I didn’t stop there — I asked the mighty Google for more information, and it turns out those ‘difficulties’ affected quite a number of O2’s customers, both iPhone and otherwise, judging by the 20-odd page discussion that was raging on O2’s official support pages.

Tech news site published several notices from O2 during the outages, which began rather hopefully:

We’re sorry that some mobile customers have had problems with data today – these services will be back up tonight.

…but ended on a decidedly more sullen note;

The system fault has been fixed and internet connections are gradually being restored. MMS and Visual Voicemail remain affected. We’re working on these as a priority.

Thankfully the problem was cleared up reasonably swiftly. Something to do with incorrectly assigned IP addresses, or leaves on the line (trust me, if you’re British that’s hilarious!)

While some tech sites are reporting on the data outages in London in much the same tone they would AT&T’s (s att) lackluster services in New York or San Francisco, I must offer my own (admittedly anecdotal) evidence to the contrary; my partner and I are both iPhone-toting, data-hungry technophiles who just happen to live in London. And this is the first time this year we’ve experienced any truly memorable disruption to O2’s data network. For clarity: I’m not saying we haven’t suffered the occasional dropped-call here and there. We have — at a rate of perhaps one dropped call every other month. You see, when all is said and done, the O2 network is normally exemplary (as it should be, considering how much we pay them).

Still, O2 has been reaching out to its customers, cap in hand, doing that quintessentially British thing…apologizing. In a Reuters report published today O2’s Chief Executive Ronan Dunne is quoted saying:

Where we haven’t met our own high standards then there’s no question, we apologize to customers for that fact. But it would be wrong to say O2 has failed its customers en masse.

The story is much the same here in the UK for O2 as it is for AT&T in the States; smartphone ownership is on the rise and smartphone owners use a lot of data, relative to the amount consumed by so-called ‘feature phone’ customers. The network carriers simply aren’t prepared for this. Historically they’ve never had to provide this much bandwidth and their business models (typically structured into five year plans that don’t change much in-between revisions) simply don’t make adequate (if any) provisions for the scale of network investment and improvement that data-hungry devices like the iPhone demand.

Still, that doesn’t stop their execs bragging about the upgrades that have taken place. From Reuters;

The company [O2] had invested 30 million pounds ($48 million) in its London network to meet demand […] and 200 extra mobile base stations had been installed.

Sounds impressive, no? But I wonder… that’s an awful lot of money, and an awful lot of new base stations. That sort of massive investment into network expansion was likely planned years ago as part of the company’s long-term growth strategy. Indeed, such a huge investment plan could easily have predated the 2007 introduction of the iPhone, and the subsequent explosion in smartphone adoption.

However, I’m not beating up on O2. It might be feeling the same pain AT&T has so publically suffered in recent months, but at least it’s not reacting the same way AT&T’s CEO Ralph De La Vega did, with barely-concealed threats of data-caps and tiered pricing plans for smartphone users.

AT&T’s message (at least how it comes across to me) has mostly been along the lines of, “You iPhone customers are a nuisance, you’re to blame for all our network problems, so you’ll have to pay us more money!” Conversely, O2’s message reads, “You iPhone customers chew through a terribly high volume of data that sometimes causes us problems – we’re sorry we weren’t ready for that, and we’re working on it”

Color me biased. But tell me you don’t think AT&T could learn something about good PR from their British counterparts.

11 Responses to “Like AT&T, O2 Feels the Strain, but Doesn’t Whine About iPhone Customers”

  1. @Graham; I couldn’t agree more, but irrespective of whether or not it was good business sense or not, the fact remains that O2 did the right thing and AT&T more often than not don’t – to the extent that people are associating the infrastructure problems with the phone.

  2. Surely O2’s response is more down to the fact that they’re no longer have iPhone exclusivity in the UK? Given that you’ll be able to get an iPhone on all four major networks from early 2010 (not to mention 3, Tesco Mobile and co. getting in on the act too), blaming iPhone customers for network problems isn’t an option because they’ll just jump ship to a different operator.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like O2 a lot compared to the other operators in the UK, but their response in this case is simply good business sense.

  3. I was with AT&T before, and probably still be with them longer if AT&T hadn’t ceded their NC customers to SUNCOM. I have at several times considered going back to them for the iPhone. But the actions of AT&T and their CEO really put me off. As far as I can tell, there are different levels of evils. And while I wouldn’t want to go back to Verizon or AT&T (for anything). Verizon is the lesser of to evils.

    O2 sounds like an admirable wireless provider. Perhaps all U.S. providers could get a few pointers from them.

  4. cyberdoyle

    great article, well written, totally agree. They didn’t see it coming…
    … the only answer is serious infrastructure upgrades, as it is gonna get a lot worse otherwise. Also the landline broadband suffers the same way. It was ok for early internet use, but the victorian phone network can no longer take the strain. Openretch is busy replicating virgin’s cable footprint instead of investing in other areas. The next decade is gonna see urban areas served twice, and 90% of the uk land mass will stay on copper narrowband. Digitalbritain? More like thirdworld slowlane. And politicians still believe we are getting superfast, it is funny to see them fall for the spin. well it would be funny… except it is sad to see our chance of embracing a digital revolution go down the swannee, in the same way the industrial one has now gone. Let us hope the next government gets IT and does something before Mandy wrecks everything.

  5. I can’t believe they’re still in business. I’ve refused to do business with AT&T since 1997, when I used to work there. They have the worst coverage and worst customer service & billing.

    This is the only reason I don’t use an iPhone even though I’ve got all kinds of other Apple products.

  6. I had 6 dropped calls today in NYC. And guess what? I was using my job issued Verizon phone. I had to use my personal phone a few times because of the problems I’ve been having with Verizon. And guess what else? My personal phone is an Iphone.

    • John, you are in NYC and you haven’t had any dropped calls or data issues on your iPhone?? I really find that hard to believe as everyone I know with an iPhone has issues on a daily basis. Perhaps you did have problems with Verizon today, I can only tell you my experience with the company that extended from years back until last october when I switched. Even my husband who also has a personal iphone & a Verizon workphone is constantly having to use the Verizon phone because of so many dropped calls. If he has to make an important call from his iphone he has to go into settings and make sure the 3G service is turned off because if you switch towers you will automatically drop the call you are on (as stated to me by several AT&T personnel both in customer service & technical support), that’s not to say he won’t drop it anyway but he has a better shot at completing a whole call. What a royal pain in the ***. I never had to do any such thing with any of my Verizon phones, and I’m sure anyone with an Android will tell you they don’t have to do that either. They jumped the gun on their entire data operation. It wasn’t ready for anything like the iphone and still isn’t a couple of years later and Verizon is already working on the next generation of data service & AT&T hasn’t gotten 3G to work right yet. Considering I spend a couple thousand dollars a year for service for my family members, I expect to make a phone call, have it go thru, talk for as long as I would like to, say good-bye & then hang up without having to drop the call 3 or 4 times not to mention not being able to connect to start with half the time. It’s just a shame all around and a very expensive mistake on my part, especially when you factor the cost of the 3 iphones we have on top the monthly service for the length of a 2 year contract. I love my phone but hate the service.

  7. I couldn’t agree more! AT&T’s service is miserable and we pay them a fortune. Their infrastructure is severely lacking. Between data outages & dropped calls I am frustrated every single day. Although I have constant contact with both the regular customer service & executive customer service teams, there really is no apology and no way to rectify the issues in any kind of timely manner. I had Verizon Wireless for many years and made the switch specifically for the iphone and couldn’t regret it more. Verizon’s infrastructure is sound. They don’t drop calls going from 3G to edge data coverage areas etc. If I dropped 5 calls a year with Verizon it was a lot & never had a data issue. I cannot wait for my contract to expire with AT&T so I can go back to VW. I just wish I could take my iPhone with me! I LOVE my phone and it’s unfortunate that we have such a sophisticated piece of equipment on such a horrible network. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to choose which network to use our iPhones on. It definitely sounds like you guys overseas got a better deal than we do here in the States, AT&T should definitely take a few notes…