Thursday, August 14, 2008

iPhone Brings New Attention to AT&T's Existing 3G Problem

The wave has been building for a few days now, with consumers, Apple, and AT&T sparring over the problems with the iPhone 3G staying connected (and on 3G).

Today seems to be a local maximum and the mainstream media are starting to look.

If you read this blog regularly, you're probably expecting me to blame Apple for the problem, then blame Apple again for denying there's a problem, then blame Apple fanboys for putting up with it all for so long then suddenly acting betrayed.

Surprise!

As much as that might be a valid argument -- especially the part about Apple denying there's a problem -- this one is really not their fault.

It's kind of AT&T's fault -- and kind of GSM's fault -- and kind of just mediocre engineering.

A while back, I wrote about similar experiences with my Samsung Blackjack on AT&T. I've also seen the same thing with the AT&T 8525 (Cingular 8525 / HTC TyTn), as this was one of the first multi-protocol, multi-band 3G devices on that network.

Most people don't have any idea what this is all about, since their devices cannot experience this specific sort of problem because they don't support 3G, and so never have to resolve between 3G, EDGE, GPRS, etc.

In this case, AT&T argues that one suspect, the Infineon chipset, is not to blame because it's the same one in Samsung devices, with which they have had little problem. I don't think that's their strongest argument: others appear to be having as much trouble as I do with the Blackjack/3G. We just never made as much noise as the iPhone folks.

Perhaps a better argument would be that it affects all the EDGE/UMTS/HSDPA devices on the network and then maybe blame GSM for having such a funky data transport technology roadmap over the last 10 years.

I'm not saying AT&T could easily do better -- maybe they need more capacity and a tune-up of switching algorithms. A CNET article points to GSM carrier T-Mobile Netherlands having the same problem. And even though CDMA is worlds better as a technology, it's nice to have a little competition out there: two CDMA carriers for the U.S. out of four majors is enough.

So what does all this mean?

First, I'll tip my hat for once to the iPhonosphere and the obsessive media that love them: this is a real issue and we all know it takes a lot of volume to be heard talking to a telco.

Second, even Steve Jobs' strong-arming of the carriers worldwide (and good for him on that one!) doesn't mean everything is really under his control. According to this Sydney Morning Herald story, Apple didn't provide any test units to some carriers until the day before the product release, hoping it would all "just work."

To paraphrase someone I used to work with, in technology "hope is not a strategy."

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