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A Verizon iPhone: Will it Make a Difference?

On the eve of the expected announcement that the wishes of many mobile phone customers would be fulfilled with the arrival of the iPhone on Verizon’s network, there’s a larger question that’s not so easily answered. That question is whether a large number of supposedly disgruntled AT&T customers will switch as soon as their contracts expire, or before, forcing them to suffer a large early termination fee.

Although AT&T’s share of the market is only slightly behind Verizon’s, they are perceived as being vastly inferior. In large part, that’s because of frequent reports of connection problems in such major cities as New York and San Francisco. It doesn’t help that readers of Consumer Reports — a magazine I regard as highly flawed when it comes to their coverage of consumer electronics — regularly gives AT&T bad marks. I’ll accept the surveys as accurate, and the reader perceptions as genuine, although maybe not up to date. It’s not as if CR is making up those numbers.

Contrast that with AT&T’s ongoing claim that they are pouring billions of dollars into boosting their network capacity, particularly in cities where the existing systems are overloaded. Here in the Phoenix area, AT&T has gotten better, partly because they have built new cell towers in my area. I even got text messages extolling the network enhancements, and my personal experiences do verify improved connection quilt,y and the lessening of dropped calls, although they still happen occasionally. But I’ve also had dropped calls with other carriers over the years.

Unfortunately, adding cell towers isn’t such an easy process, even if the carrier is willing. Steve Jobs has claimed it can take up to three years to build them in San Francisco, partly because of zoning requirements, and protests from people in the neighborhoods where the facilities are to be constructed. Since that statement hasn’t been factually disputed, I’ll also accept it as accurate, but it doesn’t help AT&T.

Now, in advance of the iPhone’s arrival on their network, Verizon has been quoted as saying they are fully capable of handling the demands posed by Apple’s iconic smartphone. After all, all those Android OS phones rushed into the market with two-for-one deals seem to work all right, and certainly Verizon’s network quality almost always rates higher than AT&T.

But there are a few questions on the horizon. First is the inability to take a phone call and browse the Internet at the same time. This is a feature iPhone users are accustomed to, because the GSM technology permits such multitasking. But not the CDMA system employed by Verizon, and some other carriers around the planet. It will be interesting to see how or if Verizon addresses that shortcoming. The other issue is download speeds on their network.

AT&T touts its network as being superior to Verizon when it comes to speed, and this has been borne out in independent tests, although they don’t focus on the ability to get connections and the relative freedom from dropped calls. If you have to put up with frequent disconnects, it doesn’t matter so much if your downloads are faster when you get connected.

My personal mobile phone experiences include Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and AT&T. The first was treacherous, with bad network quality, and horrible customer support. My two years with Sprint represented one of the few times where I felt like yelling every time I got a support person on the phone for one reason or another. In fairness to Sprint, they claim to have improved both the network and support, and this is also evidently confirmed by published reviews. I ditched Verizon largely to get the iPhone, but also because support had deteriorated. I’ve never had a problem of this sort with AT&T.

When it comes to personal contacts with a company, though, my experiences may not mirror yours. Maybe I just talked to the right — or wrong — people, and no doubt certain call centers fare better than others.

The long and short of it is that my AT&T contract is months away from expiration. I do not have any issues that would spur me to move to a carrier that, in my personal experience, doesn’t really deliver a superior user experience. I’m quite pleased with my iPhone 4. Since the unit has one of Apple’s bumpers, I do not suffer from that alleged “Death Grip” problem.

When the iPhone 5 arrives, as one expects it will by summer, I’ll reconsider the issue. I expect AT&T will be working as hard as they can to retain customers, although there will be a fair amount of churn, particularly if the Verizon iPhone is given a superior rating in the cities where AT&T is vulnerable. I also expect that Apple will do some redesigning of the antenna setup for their 2011 model to reduce the impact of holding it the wrong way, though they surely can’t violate the laws of physics, even if some critics think otherwise.