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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7 Responses to “So is AT&T the Pits?”

  1. Hairy Goomer says:

    I’m here in the Hill Country in Texas, northwest of San Antonio, and I have no complaints about AT&T’s service, except I wish it were less expensive. We’ve even had 3G for quite some time in the small city where I live.

    My belief is that AT&T is no better and no worse than the other providers, but folks sure like to b*tch about them. Just wait – once the iPhone is available on Verizon, we’ll hear plenty of the same comments about them that people use in referring to AT&T.

  2. Karl says:

    I’m in the Akron, Ohio area and I too don’t really have any outstanding issues with AT&T. AT&T’s network does have “normal” problems, but I have had problems with every carrier I have used in the past. So even if Verizon gets the iPhone, I wouldn’t switch. I do hope that Verizon does get the iPhone, so that more people can experience it.

  3. Hairy Goomer says:


    Oh, I agree about Verizon getting the iPhone. As the owner of a bit of AAPL stock, I want the folks at Verizon to get their hands on iPhones by the gazillions.

  4. Dan D'Errico says:

    I dread using my 3G iPhone for phone calls. It drops perhaps 50 percent of calls. It might drop more calls but I try to speak quickly so that I hang up before the next drop happens. I live in NJ , ten miles west of New York City.

  5. mysterian says:

    I’ve no complaints in the Houston area.

  6. Peter says:

    Same with SoCal–no problems here in LA/OC.

    As an aside, my roomate is a Verizon customer and is waiting patiently for the iPhone to appear. She recently won an iPad from the company where she works (Christmas party raffle) and we figured we’d stop by the Verizon store and check out MiFi for her iPad.

    Verizon’s 3G network may be ubiquitous, but it is extremely slow. Even in their store, where I would assume they have appropriate repeaters and such, download speeds were abysmal. My iPhone was much faster.

    So I’ll be curious about how many of these AT&T-haters are going to jump to Verizon and regret it.

  7. Richard says:

    I agree with “Hairy” that AT&T is probably no better or worse than other carriers in my area just to the south of him. That said, there is ample room for improvement. I believe that AT&T needs new “leadership” in their tech/maintenance department because there are many towers which are either completely out of service or “significantly degraded” which result in poor service. I think it will take new people to change things so that the equipment they do have is “online” more of the time. Management is not terribly proactive in this regard and needs to be.

    All things considered, the areas where there is coverage are at least the equal of other carriers based on my conversations with people using other carriers in my area. “The rub” is that there are many areas in the west where AT&T has limited or no coverage at all which means that Apple will never sell an iphone unless they provide handsets to other carriers…so, yes, Apple needs to expand its market for its own benefit, or more precisely, the benefit of its share holders.

    I still do not believe a single word of AT&T’s inflamatory accusations that 2% of the customers were consuming 90% (or whatever the number was) of the available bandwith as an excuse for their penurious allotments of bandwith for their data phones. Their numbers literally do not add up and, from what I have been able to determine, are not even possible except as a temporary circumstance on a particular cell. They want to sell you a data phone (and plan), but don’t want you to actually use it.

    AT&T have purchase $1.9 billion in (700 MHz) bandwith which appears to be the intended backbone of their LTE data network beginning in 2011. This will require new devices to utilize not only the technology, but the frequency. It should not be that big a deal for the companies which are real cell phone companies, but one has to wonder how long too long it will take Steve and company to deliver such a product. Some like to say that Apple have a habit of waiting until a technology is “mature” until implementing it, but I think it more accurate to say that Apple are frequently simply late to the party when it comes to implementing new technology.

    What everyone “forgets” when talking about cell phone service is that cell phones are actually very small and very low power radios subject to all the weaknesses of radio communications.

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