As has been discussed here ad nauseum, AT&T’s network has been stressed by the iPhone. Since the users of Apple’s device tend to use the Internet more than owners of other smartphones, AT&T’s data network gets bogged down during peak periods.
Now, BusinessWeek has an article that attempts to explain why, after more than two years, AT&T has been seemingly unable to keep up with the demand for bandwidth generated by the phone.
As writer Peter Burrows points out, the stakes are high:
The shortcomings leave AT&T under pressure to make its network iPhone-ready or risk losing its edge in smartphones. The company is almost sure to lose the exclusive partnership with Apple (AAPL), possibly as early as next year. That would open the door to AT&T losing millions of customers as iPhone owners depart to rivals such as Verizon Wireless. More important, AT&T would have wasted a golden opportunity to become the clear leader in the multibillion dollar market for wireless Web access. “Nobody is in the same boat we’re in,” says AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan. “We’re shaping the landscape for the whole industry, and I relish the opportunity to be the first to figure it out.”
Odds are against AT&T. Many of its 60,000 cell towers need to be upgraded. That could cost billions of dollars, and AT&T has kept a lid on capital spending during the recession — though it has made spending shifts to accommodate skyrocketing iPhone traffic. Even if the funds were available now, the process could take years due to the hassle and time needed to win approval to erect new towers and to dig the ditches that hold fiber-optic lines capable of delivering data. And time is ticking. All carriers are moving to a much faster network standard called LTE that will begin being deployed in 2011. Once that transition has occurred, the telecom giant will be on a more level playing field.
Simply put, AT&T’s network is so vast and the process of upgrading and adding equipment so complex (including getting approval to erect new towers and dig trenches for fiber-optic cable) that it’s impossible for the telecom giant to move quickly. Yes, it’s done what it can inadding capacity and switching on a new radio frequency that improves signals inside buildings. But is it enough?
The addition of the 850 MHz band has made a difference here in Houston, where I’m seeing much better signals indoors. In fact, my desk at the Houston Chronicle used to be a serious AT&T dead zone — I had to swivel my chair in a specific direction just to make a call — but now I get a solid four bars most of the time. And this is even after the downtown building has been swaddled infaux-marble aluminum siding, effectively turning it into a Faraday cage.
On the other hand, I heard via e-mail last week from an iPhone owner who can’t make calls from inside his building at 1201 Louisiana unless he turns off his 3G service. He’s had this problem with two different iPhones.
If you’re an AT&T wireless subscriber with a smartphone (regardless of whether it’s an iPhone) what’s been your experience lately? Are things better or worse for you?