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

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 V3.co.uk 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 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.

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