Monday, July 2, 2007

It's the Network, stupid!

As I contemplated my iPhone experiment (buy one, test it, take it back if it doesn't work out), one of my biggest concerns was "the new AT&T" Wireless network, and the "EDGE" data service.

I've had a cellphone since 1992 on Verizon (actually Cellular One --> Airtouch Cellular --> Verizon Wireless: same carrier, three names in 15 years), with an account that my wife and mother-in-law still share. VZW and I parted ways a while back -- when I did a paralell test for two weeks of the Treo 600 on their data network vs Sprint PCS. I've been on Sprint ("now together with Nextel") since 2004 with my Treo. I upgraded to the 700p last year.

In the Lansing market, we can also choose "the new AT&T" (Ameritech Wireless --> SBC Wireless + AT&T Wireless + Cingular --> AT&T) or Alltel (20th Century Wireless --> CenturyTel --> Alltel). T-Mobile has not really been much of a presence here, so mostly it's the big two: VZW or Sprint, with AT&T a contending third.

One of the obvious concerns was the EDGE data network of AT&T vs the EVDO on Sprint or VZW. Right from the iPhone announcement, this was the clear weakness. Reviews last week by the tech gurus (Walt Mossburg for WSJ and David Pogue for NYT) both cited this as a potential liability. But is it a deal breaker?

In my experience so far, there is a far more serious concern. Can I even make or receive calls? "iPhone"? -- "noPhone" is more like it. The AT&T regular cell voice network, let alone the EDGE data, is mostly "No Service" or sometimes 0 or 1 bars, at our house in the heart of residential East Lansing. Hardly the "more bars in more places" that was promised! After I activated the iPhone at about 2 in the morning Friday night, I was a bit concerned that the AT&T indicator only flickered on occasionally, but, then I was tired and maybe the network was overloaded or maybe the phone needed a full charge. I'd try again after some sleep.

In the cold, gray dawn of Saturday morning, a beautiful Michigan summer day was shaping up, but my iPhone couldn't even contact the voicemail service to set it up!! I looked up their coverage map, and, sure enough, a vast area of the residential neighborhoods of East Lansing have only "moderate" voice service! Overall, the coverage in Michigan is pretty much along the major highways only, outside of the Detroit mega-opolis. (The newer, true high-speed data network is only available in parts of Detroit and Ann Arbor.) But this is 2007 folks, and Lansing (I think) is not Podunk. VZW & Sprint seem to agree.

So, I took the iPhone outside, and got all the way up to 1 bar, but still no "E" to indicate data service. The coverage map showed that things were better to the south and west of me. It turns out that I'd left behind my lawn chair at the AT&T store, so I went back to retrieve it, and, indeed, I finally started to see more bars! And the "E" appeared! When I stopped in to the store, they all wanted to know what I thought so far. The answer was easy -- an amazing device on a crappy network. I don't even know how fast it is, because I can't even get enough service coverage to set up my voicemail, let alone browse the InterWeb! I earnestly requested that they put in a new tower within a mile of my house right away, or I'd probably have to (sadly) return the iPhone. They were stunned, but no one offered to strap on the tool belt and follow me home.

I went ahead and set up the voicemail sitting in the parking lot, and drove on to further experiments. In a later post, I'll report on some timings I've done of Web page retrievals, comparing my Sprint Treo 700p to the iPhone, both on the AT&T network (outside my house) and on WiFi (inside and out).

But, for now, the iPhone is just a JulyPhone, and not a DecemberPhone -- at least in Michigan -- if you have to take it outside to receive or make a phone call...

Message to Apple and AT&T: "It's the NETWORK, stupid!"


AndreaB. said...

Thank you! This is the information I've been searching the web for for hours. I live in Okemos, I love Apple, and desperately want an iPhone. I haven't bought one yet because of my (apparently well-founded) fear that the AT&T network around hear s*cks. Not much point in owning a phone that can't make or receive calls, even if it does have the coolest UI in town.
So the real question is, does AT&T have any near-term plans to improve their coverage? It's hard to imagine them selling too many phones - of any sort- to the Lansing metro area if we can't get reception.

Pat said...

Thanks, Andrea, but don't give up too soon! Although AT&T s*cks at my house, it WILL be different at yours.

I spent part of Mon afternoon at Lake Lansing Park South at a college gathering and the service there was 5 bars and very impressive [great for showing off and being the coolest alumni geek present;)]. The YouTube streaming videos are stunning on the iPhone's brilliant screen, even in full outdoor daylight.

Tomorrow,I plan to visit the AT&T store again and ask seriously what I can do to get better coverage (repeater antenna on my house?). I'm not giving up ... yet.