NY Times Blames iPhone for AT&T Woes, Courtesy of AT&T Consultants

NY Times Blames iPhone for AT&T Woes, Courtesy of AT&T Consultants

Everyone knows that the one thing holding the iPhone back in the U.S. is AT&T’s poor 3G coverage, right? With a dropped signal, it can transform from one of the world’s most capable mobile computers to a video iPod that plays a pretty mean version of Doom. Everyone knows the problem lies with the network’s inability to handle iPhone data traffic, as iPhones have no such problems in the European market, Japan, and other regions where it has a major foothold — places where the network load is so much not a problem that they enable data tethering from laptops.

Well, everyone knows but the New York Times and the mobile industry analysts — some of whom work for AT&T — they interviewed about the matter. In a dreadful column titled “AT&T Takes the Blame, Even for iPhone’s Faults“, one of the paper’s correspondents in Silicon Valley, Randall Stross, goes so far as to definitively declare that the iPhone’s design “is contributing to performance problems” and that with regard to Verizon, “AT&T has the superior network nationwide.” Oh, for crying out loud.

The article has brought down the Apple blogosphere’s derision, most notably John Gruber, who trashes Stross with, you know, facts, such as the fact that the chief source of the story is a paid network consultant of AT&T’s or that one of the other sources tests network strength and individual phone performance with software that won’t run on iPhones. Their hypothesis, that the iPhone has secret phone networking problems, are excellent, so long as you don’t consider that they aren’t grounded on supporting data from unbiased sources.

What’s most remarkable to me about all of this is how obviously manipulated the statistics are to make AT&T look better than Verizon. In one instance, Paul Carter of Global Wireless Solutions (which works for AT&T) notes that AT&T’s network throughput is “40 to 50 percent higher than the competition, including Verizon.” Sure, but no one denies that the maximum speed of AT&T 3G isn’t faster than CDMA. They complain that AT&T often lacks coverage of any kind, drops calls, and slips into EDGE for no apparent reason. Also, “the competition, including Verizon,” in no way shows what is being compared. Is that relative to just Verizon, or is “the competition” an average of Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon? The fact that T-Mobile didn’t have 3G of any kind until a year ago would certainly drag that average down.

So some of the data from Root Wireless (though not measuring iPhone performance) sounds more convincing until you consider the phrasing: “In every market, AT&T had faster average download speeds and had signal strength of 75 percent or better more frequently than did Verizon.” Again, average download speeds are irrelevant. The second piece of data sounds significant, until you realize that what really matters is which network has no signal at all more frequently. And I’m quite confident AT&T would win that race.

Finally, it cracks me up that the only person willing to come out and claim that there is a problem with the iPhone’s air interface, the part that talks with cell phone towers, is Roger Entner, an SVP of Nielsen, who doesn’t have a technical background. According to his blog, he has an MBA and a BA. So, unless you think that a marketing analyst knows more about phone engineering than, well, actual engineers, this is hardly a credible comment.

Finally, just take a step back. Has AT&T’s network ever been good? My wife has had both a BlackBerry and a Centro on AT&T, and coverage has been worse for her than it has been for my iPhone 3GS. If anything, the iPhone usually makes it better. Either way, I cannot see any evidence that, as Stross recommends, “AT&T, send some engineers to redesign the iPhone to make better use of the country‚Äôs fastest wireless network.”

Do any of you think Apple is somehow secretly to blame? Really?

About the author

Pete Mortensen

Pete Mortensen is a design strategist for consulting firm Jump Associates and the co-author of Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, a book and blog that are significantly more interesting than you might initially think. Pete's particular Apple avocations are both around design--interface and industrial. Follow him on Twitter!

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