My top story for 2009: AT&T blunders by defending its wireless coverage

AT&T's poor service for the iPhone was one of the biggest topics I covered in 2009 - and until the company gets it right, it will likely be a topic for 2010, too.

I covered a lot of topics for the Between the Lines blog in 2009 - the debates over cloud computing, Steve Jobs' medical condition, Yahoo's new strategies and the long-awaited release of Windows 7, among others. But the one story that stuck with me most, largely because it continues to take twists and turns, was the public relations beating that I've been giving to AT&T over its wireless service.

It was early January when I actually bought an iPhone and signed up for the AT&T service - only to return the device and cancel the service two weeks later. The reason: dropped calls and shoddy data service that was more the norm than the exception.

Since then, I've written a number of posts about AT&T's service, hoping that maybe - just maybe - posts across the blogosphere about the poor service might just shame AT&T into making some substantial improvements. But, now in December, the service doesn't seem to be much better, nor does AT&T seem to be ashamed of what it's offering its customers in exchange for their $100-plus bill every month.

Consider some of the developments of just the past few months:

  • AT&T took Verizon Wireless to court over an advertising campaign that used 3G coverage maps of the two companies to highlight how much better Verizon's service was over AT&T's. What was crazy was that AT&T argued that the ads were misleading, but not inaccurate, which gave Verizon the chance to tell AT&T that "the truth hurts." AT&T drove more publicity to its shoddy service by bringing the lawsuit. When it lost the suit, it made headlines - and, of course, prompted Verizon to launch even more commercials around these coverage maps.
  • Just as the holiday season was getting ready to kick off, Consumer Reports ranked AT&T dead last with an overall ranking of “poor” for service but it also noted that “if you’re readying to buy Apple’s iPhone, prepare for possible disappointment with its service" even though you'll love the phone.
  • In November, AT&T issued a press release to say it was wrapping up a $65 million investment in 3G upgrades for the San Francisco Bay Area - and noted that it had finished the upgrade in the Silicon Valley area earlier in the year. So the problems should be history, right? Hardly. About three weeks later, Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobility, said that AT&T had bolstered its coverage but still had two markets "performing at levels below our standards and that is Manhattan and San Francisco." It's funny that de la Vega would speak of "bringing those two markets up to the standards" even though the company said weeks earlier that it was wrapping up the upgrade. (Don't even get me started on how de la Vega is trying to blame data hogs for its network problems and is considering curbing their usage.)

Since buying and returning that iPhone 11 months ago, I've been trying to shake my iPhone envy. Testing a Google Droid has been such a good experience that my feelings of envy have started to wane. Still, if the iPhone found itself on the Verizon Wireless network today, I'd be the first in line to get one. I'm definitely still interested.

Maybe that's one of the reasons I'm determined to hold AT&T to a higher standard, to point out the network's shortcomings and, yes, even embarrass an executive if that's what it takes to make the company accountable. As a long-time newspaper journalist, I was taught to hold companies accountable, to ask the tough questions and that it's OK to write something that a company might not like.

This is why I'm sticking by the AT&T story. In all honesty, I hope that AT&T gets its act together in 2010 to a point that I won't have to write any more of these posts.

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