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The Great AT&T/Verizon Wireless Smackdown

It’s sometimes hard to believe that AT&T was once this huge telecommunications conglomerate that encompassed the entire length and breadth of the U.S. before an antitrust action separated Big Bell into Baby Bells. Well, mergers and acquisitions have fattened what was left of AT&T and Verizon, and left smaller players on the fringes. Qwest, another Baby Bell, continues to struggle to justify its existence.

However, AT&T and Verizon Wireless have mostly kept their hands off each other when it comes to advertising. Verizon stresses its network quality, where AT&T has the iPhone, and there’s always “an app for that” to buttress their claims of superiority.

More recently, Verizon has decided to go for the jugular and is attacking AT&T as the result of its well-known network shortcomings. So you know that Verizon has a much larger 3G network footprint when it comes to square miles of coverage, whereas they actually reach around 20% more people overall. However, their recent “there’s a map for that” campaign leaves the AT&T coverage map mostly blank, conveying the misleading impression that the competition has no coverage whatever in most of the country.

Well, AT&T’s efforts to get the courts to put a stop to the questionable claims got shot down by the courts. Verizon is simply claiming that its map is limited to 3G coverage, and is thus accurate.

To fight back, AT&T has contracted with actor Luke Wilson to deliver ads meant to demonstrate just how much coverage they have, although that coverage also includes the larger but slower EDGE network, and they really don’t draw the distinction. Apple has also jumped into the fray with its own ads demonstrating a huge flaw in Verizon’s 3G system, one that prevents you from talking on the phone and consulting  email or checking a site at the same time. Even though the iPhone is dinged for its lack of true multitasking support, there are a few areas where you can do two things at once, and this can be a huge advantage under some circumstances.

The problem with comparative advertising is that the parties involved will sugarcoat the information that favors them and exaggerate the competition’s shortcomings. The truth tends to lie in the middle.

So it is quite true that network quality on Verizon is superior to AT&T. Then again, Verizon doesn’t have an iPhone hogging network capacity, and I wonder if they’d feel so smug if they had anything near as popular. And the Motorola Droid, though it’s done fairly well out of the gate, doesn’t exhibit any evidence of matching Apple’s smartphone in terms of sales.

Indeed, fully 50% of mobile Web access can be attributed — or blamed — on the iPhone. In all fairness to AT&T, as it pours loads of cash into improving its network, I don’t think they anticipated just how the iPhone would emancipate its user base to huge much more bandwidth than any other mobile device.

On the other hand, they still have lots of explaining to do. In the January 2010 issue of Consumer Reports, there’s a fairly extensive roundup of wireless carriers, service plans and handsets. According to the magazine’s reader surveys, AT&T rates dead last when it comes to call quality and reliability in most major U.S. cities.

But there are some questions about these ratings that require further details. Usually, CR tallies these results based on its annual questionnaires, sent to all paid subscribers. Since there’s no way to predict which readers are actually going to take the time to fill out and return the surveys, which contain extremely nonspecific questions, you can hardly call the results scientific. Well, at least they’re random, and I’ll grant that CR is recording the data accurately.

However, there’s one huge mistake in another section of the issue, covering computer lab tests, where CR claims that “Apple increased the size and brightness of its new iMac displays without hefty price increases.”

In fact, there were no price increases. The new models cost pretty much the same as the old for most configurations, and for some, they are actually cheaper. There’s also a misleading comparison with a Dell Studio XPS SX8000-2361 desktop, listing for $1,020, compared to the $1,199 you pay for the basic iMac. The casual reader will think that the Dell, sporting Intel’s quad-core i7 processor, is a much better deal.

This calls for a reality check. You see the Dell Studio XPS is a standard minitower, not an all-in-one computer. Regardless, the price increases to over $1,600 when you configure that box with a low-end 21.5-inch display, a decent range of bundled software, but without a Bluetooth option. Leave it to CR to gloss over the fine details.

But in the end, the real issue on the table here is AT&T’s network quality. Even assuming the CR survey is accurate, the last reader questionnaire went out weeks before the April 2009 issue appeared, making it months old. AT&T claims asserts it’s working hard to improve network capacity, performance and reliability. Little of that, alas, would be reflected in CR’s ratings.

In the end, AT&T can surely do better, and I think they have had their shortcomings thrown in their face quite a bit in recent months. Maybe they’ll get the message before Apple does contract with Verizon to deliver the iPhone on their network, even if you’d be forced to use Wi-Fi to be able to talk and read email at the same time.