Oops, I Was Wrong. Turns Out, AT&T is Awesome.

A few months back, PC World did a test on 3G performance in the real world, and shockingly, AT&T didn’t do so well. With all of the hub-bub about AT&T improving their network, PC World decided to do the test again, and guess what? It’s better. Turns out, a LOT better. From the article:

After registering the lowest average download speeds in our 3G performance tests last spring, AT&T’s network turned in download speeds that were 84 percent better than the numbers from eight months ago; in our latest tests, AT&T’s download speeds were 67 percent faster on average than those of the other three largest U.S. wireless providers–Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

In our tests last spring, AT&T posted an average download speed of 818 kbps (kilobits per second) across 13 cities. In our tests conducted in December 2009 and January 2010, AT&T’s average download speed increased to 1410 kbps.

AT&T’s download speeds in New York City were three times faster in our latest tests than in our tests last spring; in San Francisco, the AT&T’s download speeds were 40 percent faster.

I don’t doubt in the slightest that AT&T’s network is better in the areas with the highest amount of complaints. Squeaky wheel gets the grease, after all. That doesn’t explain why my calls drop when I’m 5 feet away from that 5-bar zone on my iPhone, or why I can get a perfect signal standing in my living room, but outside the front door I can’t make a call to save my life.

Turns out, there’s another theory. Ars Technica has an interesting piece about smartphones and their changes on the networks they run on. Their theory:

The first problem that O2 encountered was that the iPhone uses more power saving features than previous smartphone designs. Most devices that use data do so in short bursts—a couple e-mails here, a tweet there, downloading a voicemail message, etc. Normally, devices that access the data network use an idling state that maintains the open data channel between the device and the network. However, to squeeze even more battery life from the iPhone, Apple configured the radio to simply drop the data connection as soon as any requested data is received. When the iPhone needs more data, it has to set up a new data connection.

The result is more efficient use of the battery, but it can cause problems with the signaling channels used to set up connections between a device and a cell node. Cell nodes use signaling channels to set up the data connection, as well as signaling phone calls, SMS messages, voicemails, and more. When enough iPhones are in a particular area, these signaling channels can become overloaded—there simply aren’t enough to handle all the data requests along with all the calls and messages.

The article goes further to say that it’s not just the iPhone that does this, because Android programs do it too, but still, it makes sense. Battery life has always been an issue for the iPhone, and I’m sure that Apple does whatever they can to push more battery life out of the system.

So what’s the fix? Sounds like a combination of things. From my comfortable, armchair quarterback position, I think that battery technology needs to go up another notch, but AT&T needs to fill in those gaps as well. Put the two together, and it looks like you’ve got a recipe for success.


  1. It’s a nice theory but doesn’t explain why iPhone users in other countries have no major complaints about call quality. As for the US, I was a Verizon customer for years before switching to AT&T when I got my iPhone. I’d say that with Verizon the phone calls were better but the “3G” was a sad joke, while with AT&T the phone part sucks and the network is a not-quite-so-sad joke (at least once they upgraded us to 3G last year). The Edge network can be quite good but usually isn’t.

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