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  • So is AT&T the Pits?

    December 14th, 2010

    You’ve heard the complaints over and over again. AT&T is a bad wireless carrier, and that, all things being equal, you are better off with the market leader, Verizon Wireless. Of course, if you crave the iPhone in the U.S., you have a choice of one, at least for this year. Both tech and financial pundits agree that there will be a version of the iPhone for Verizon some time in 2011, probably shortly after the first of the new year.

    As to what sort of phone you’ll be able to buy, if it’s early in the year, it’ll likely be a modified version of today’s iPhone 4 with the hardware to support Verizon’s CDMA network and, perhaps, the forthcoming 4G or LTE technology. It may even be a combo product that supports CDMA and GSM, in a sense making this a “world phone.”

    Now there have been some published reports that the new Verizon iPhone will be strictly LTE, the new-fangled 4G network that’s just beginning a slow phase-in. On the other hand, that won’t make a lick of sense, since it means that most customers won’t be able to use one. More to the point, Apple doesn’t always jump into new technologies until they’ve had their shakeout cruise. The first iPhone, for example, didn’t even support 3G until AT&T had time to expand the service into more cities, and improve system capacity.

    Since nobody outside of these companies, or partners under confidentiality agreements, know for sure, and since I’m using AT&T, my personal interest in the whole affair is mostly academic, at least so far. In saying that, however, there are also published reports that Verizon hasn’t fared near as well as they hoped in moving Android OS smartphones, and forget about Windows Phone 7. So having the iPhone in their arsenal will be a win.

    But does that mean that AT&T has something to fear from the expansion of the iPhone network? I rather suspect they might, simply because loads of customers — or at least those who fill out surveys for Consumer Reports magazine — have given AT&T a collective thumbs down in  some 23 major cities. These surveys ask readers to apply one of five value judgements, from “Worse” to “Better,” in four cell phone performance categories. These include encountering areas where there’s no service, confronting dropped calls, and whether there are any issues with texting and data.

    Now I want to make it quite clear that I am no fan of Consumer Reports, particularly when it comes to technology. With personal computers, they are utterly clueless. Their reviews of smartphones are also questionable, witness the curious way in which the iPhone 4 was dinged for its alleged antenna deficiencies.

    The survey itself is part of questionnaires listeners receive, usually on an annual basis. As you might imagine, the scores are highly subjective. There is little empirical data for readers to consult in deciding whether a wireless carrier’s service is good or bad, or somewhere in between. It’s not as if Consumer Reports gives you a reference chart saying, for example, that five dropped calls a month is bad, three is average, but one is just right. They aren’t capable of that level of granular detail.

    In saying that, though, if most customers regard a company as bad, they probably have good reason, so AT&T clearly has something to worry about. There are, of course, well known problems in such cities as New York and San Francisco. Indeed, AT&T got the lowest “Worst” rating in all four categories in those locales, along with Los Angeles. Overall, AT&T never left the fourth spot compared to Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

    Surprisingly, Sprint fared better than I might have expected, especially considering the fact that it used to be one of the worst cell phone providers in this country. While Verizon was the overall winner, Sprint came close, and was rated number one in some cities. T-Mobile did all right, but was third, usually, ahead of AT&T.

    My personal experience with AT&T in the Phoenix vicinity is nowhere near as troubling. Although I had some problems with weak signals and dropped calls early on, AT&T, with some flourish, has managed to increase both cell towers and capacity. For the most part, I’m quite satisfied with their service, so I find it hard to understand why they rate so poorly in Phoenix. That is unless Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile are so far superior, it’s no contest.

    Regardless of my qualms with CR’s testing methods, a survey such as this has to be troubling to AT&T, which has been touting for several years all the billions they’ve spent enhancing their network. They still claim — and that appears to be borne out by independent tests — that their data service delivers superior download speeds compared to Verizon. But when loads of customers regard them as subpar, you can bet they have something to fear, particularly if some of those customers, iPhone users now, decide to buy the next model from Verizon.

    I suppose AT&T will dispute these results as being outdated and not representative of their current level of service. I’m not about to reach a final conclusion. But it’s a sure thing that, once my AT&T contract expires in mid-2011, I’ll definitely be open to other options, although I may stay where I am regardless.

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