The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

Summary: I've got a first gen iPhone and live in San Francisco, the heart of Apple country. The voice communication part of it has been slowly getting worse and is now virtually unusable.


I've got a first gen iPhone and live in San Francisco, the heart of Apple country. The voice communication part of it has been slowly getting worse and is now virtually unusable. A first gen iphone is of course ancient history to an Apple or Mobile Tech fanboy but the reality is many people are on two year contracts.

Any talk about iphones is polarized into two topics:

1/ Amazing form factor and highly intuitive user interface/ experience, and 2/ Often terrible US telephony courtesy of AT&T

Launched in January 2007, the 3G iphone with faster data speed and assisted GPS arrived July '08 and of course 3rd gen Apple hardware and OS arrived in June of this year.

Admirably rapid iteration of hardware and operating system upgrades from Apple: 2 year contract lock in for users with questionable quality of service.

My iphone hasn't worked in my house for around a year now: if I get a call on it I have to run outside and across the road in order to talk. It's like the Keystone Cops - the call stays connected but conversation is impossible. If you live in San Francisco you hear these iphone stories all the time.

The Downtown Runaround...

Earlier this week I had a few free minutes while in downtown San Francisco to finally go to the Apple store and see if I could do anything about this sorry state of affairs.

I got my first gen iphone at the Office 2.0 conference in September 2007: if I had a two year plan it would expire next month, but in fact I have AT&T's 'go phone' pre pay by the month plan, which allows you to discontinue service at any time.

My cunning plan back then was to see how it went and shelve the iphone if it didn't perform - I already have a Verizon phone that works very well on the west coast.

What actually happened was the data side - despite the EDGE network - was useful and I kept using it. Because the voice side was so weak I have accumulated a $500 credit on the account as I make few calls with it, because it doesn't work well.

Could I convert this credit to a newer 3G phone which would work better, I wondered? The Genius Bar technical help people in Apple stores don't discuss calling plans or service, but a small crowd of other disgruntled users with similar problems who overheard my conversation with a sales assistant quickly gathered when I was discussing my issue on the sales floor. I was told to take up my issue at the AT&T store down the street, but not before an informal iphone user group had agreed that you are committing to two contract year cycles against much faster Apple hardware development cycles, and that you are completely in the hands of AT&T for two years that your service will be usable.

Informally I was told that AT&T had degraded local EDGE service to cater to the newer 3G users,and that the sheer volume of local iphone users often overwhelmed the network. These type of rumors are typical when service is unsatisfactory, I have no idea if this is accurate.

Next stop, the AT&T shop: 20 minute wait to speak to a representative.

Nice enough guy but no clarity on what to do next which didn't involve my taking a hit in the pocket before stepping into the unknown with a newer iphone and two year plan.

'It may be my sim chip', I was told; changing that frequently clears up problems. This would entail a new account and losing my five hundred dollar credit however.

The On-Hold Time Eater

Could I apply my credit to a new phone and a new two year plan with the latest and greatest iphone, I asked? Turns out I'll have to call AT&T to ask that; they couldn't wait on hold in the store to find out for me. (I've already tried this and talked to a nice woman in India who couldn't understand what my problem was or how to solve it).

Service was 'likely to improve later this year' as AT&T roll out new infrastructure, but the new 850MHz Spectrum for Improved 3G Service won't help EDGE users much.

Keith Holmes, AT&T vice president and general manager:

"We know many of our customers depend on wireless as their primary communications connection to work, family and friends, and our mission is to ensure that every time a customer hits the 'send' key, whatever the application....We're enhancing our network every day to help customers do more with and get more from their wireless connections."

From an enterprise perspective, if two years ago I'd kitted out a collaborating business team with first gen iphones budgeted for two years of usage before upgrade, I'd probably have had to go to plan B long ago. This simply isn't business quality service, and that's tragic given how useful a business device the iphone is...if it's working....

I know the online tech world is fashion driven by the latest and greatest but - especially in this economy - dependable quality of service should be paramount regardless of device age. Most people, or their employers, can't afford to whip out their credit card and upgrade their mobile device every six months.

I personally don't have much available time to chase down AT&T to trouble shoot my account (I've already listened to a lot of on hold music on speakerphone trying to demystify all this while multi tasking) and it is very unclear whether upgrading my phone will result in better service from AT&T.

It's the classic mobile phone service catch 22 and it's just not good enough. Randall Stephenson, AT&T's chairman, CEO, and president was berated from the floor about iphone service quality at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech in Pasadena last month.

The reality however is that once you've signed up for two years of service it appears quality of your service is in the lap of the telecom Gods...

Topics: AT&T, Apple, Hardware, iPhone, Mobility, Smartphones, Telcos


Oliver Marks leads the Global Digital Enterprise Team at HP, having previously provided seasoned independent consulting guidance to companies on effective planning of business strategy, tactics, technology decisions, roll out and enduring use models that make best use of modern collaborative and social networking tools to achieve their business goals.

These are Oliver's views and not those of his employer HP.

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  • Instant reaction ...

    ... Apple and ATT ... two of the biggest global companies. Products and service in the 21st century? Crap :-(
  • Obsolescence is the rule

    This does not excuse ATT's bad network, but anybody, buying any digital product should know that it will be surpassed in months, and obsolete within a few years.

    Whether you are Apple, Dell, HP, Samsung, Nokia, etc. we are all caught in the ratrace of Moore's law. Chips are constantly, improving, but so are screens, hard drives, and everything else. So forget whining about next year's iPhone being better than this years.

    The two year mobile phone contract is pretty standard all over the world. Whether it should be shortened is open to question. It would mean higher prices up front, and that might impact sales.

    ATT should improve their network, but people with a bit of patience should borrow a phone to test in the region where they need it. Once you know the facts, you can decide for yourself.
    • Missing the point

      This has nothing to do with advancing technology and Moore's Law. It
      has to do with the fact that AT&Ts service is being degraded for older
      iPhone models in order to accommodate the newer technology. AT&T
      is NOT providing the quality of service they originally promised, for
      whatever reason.

      Not that that should have been a surprise to anyone, article author

      @Oliver Marks:
      "Admirably rapid iteration of hardware and operating system upgrades
      from Apple: 2 year contract lock in for users with questionable quality
      of service."

      BTW, colons are not used like that.

      "and our mission is to ensure that every time a customer hits the
      ?send? key, whatever the application?."

      Even using the ellipsis, you should still be quoting an actual sentence,
      not a fragment.
  • RE: The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

    I have the same problem with virtually NO service at my home in Irvine, CA. Repeated calls to at&t "you should have good service". I'm waiting for 3G microcell (a wi-fi connected service that they are beta testing in the southwest). I hope I can go back to Verizon when they (I hope) get the iPhone!
  • RE: The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

    I have to wonder why anyone would stay with AT&T when the service deteriorates. If they don't fix the service, I would complain to the local attorney general. If AT&T can't handle the volume they should stop selling contracts. It's very simple. If I pay for something, I expect to get it. If not, don't expect me to keep paying. I used to be with Sprint. I had no service at home, but I knew that when I bought them. Service else where was good, so I stayed with them. Then I found verizon would work in my house, so when my contract was up I switched. So far verizon service is the best of the bunch. Unforutnately verizon has the worst phones and they also force vendors to cripple their phones. So you are stuck making a choice between good phone service or good phones.
  • RE: The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

    Amen, brother! I just got the iPhone 3Gs in June and it's
    useless at home, though my Verizon phone used to work
    fine. My iPhone also fails to make calls or drop calls on local
    freeways just a few miles from downtown Portland, where
    you'd think it would be paramount to have cell phone service.

    I smell a class-action lawsuit. Sign me up!

  • RE: The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

    I got my 3gs phone within days of it being
    available...moving away from Blackberry.... I hated
    my decision, kicking myself because I kept getting
    dropped calls (I had to stop using my iphone and had
    to use land line) and I still do. AT&T told me it is
    the cell tower near me but it has been a few months
    and they have not been able to fix it..

    The only good news is SKYPE... I reduced my minutes on
    AT&T to minimum and I am using SKYPE when at home and
    in the office. It is far more reliable (it drops
    calls too but nothing as terrible as AT&T 3G).I pay
    extra for SKYPE but I am saving more by reducing my
    minutes on AT&T plan.

    AT&T & Apple should be ashamed of their attitude
    towards their customers...
  • its not att, its iphone

    while not having any particular loyalty to att, i have had blackberry, htc tilt, and now htc fuze phones, all with perfectly fine call quality. i do know many people with iphones, with the frequent complaint of poor phone or dropped calls, "sometimes it works, sometimes it does not"
    • I have none of those issues at all

      on my iPhone... but a lot of that has to do with locality. I've had a lot more dropped calls with my old Sprint phone than I have with the iPhone. The only issue with call quality is that people on the other end get an echo of themselves once in a while.
      • Same here

        I agree that it's locality. My friend commutes back and forth between Michigan and California for work. She has no troubles with her iPhone in Michigan, but gets the same dropped calls and such that some people mention when in some parts of California. In the area I'm in, it's Sprint that has the issues. When my wife and her brothers and sisters decided to get a family share plan a couple of years ago, they chose Sprint. Nothign but troubles the entire time. They all just switched to iPhones and haven't had any troubles since. I guess it depends on where you live really, and how good the cell networks are for the various vendors in that area.
  • RE: The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

    The families of victims of US bombs in Iraq are crying for you.
    • Dude, seriously?

      This is the wrong forum for that particular subject, you want the "whiny-a$$ tree-hugging bleeding hearts group" about 3 doors down the hall to the right. This is a discussion about iPhones, not iBombs. Thank you and goodbye!
      • Dude, seriously

        You are so dead-on. Couldn't agree more. Even if he was trying to be funny or sarcastic, his choice of analogy was poor at best.
  • RE: The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

    Is this an AT&T coverage story, or an iphone story?
    I can never tell.
    How does the difference between 3G and EDGE affect your voice calls? does it, or was that rambling?

    There is no 3G at my house 95467, 100 miles north of SF.

    A friend who lives in SF doesn't use data at all, but has no problem with some Nokia phone on AT&T.

    I have a Blackberry which is marginal around my home, but that agrees with the AT&T coverage maps.

    I don't trust the Verizon maps, because they show perfect coverage around here, which I know can't be true.

    I am looking forward to the microcell, which should make in home coverage ideal. I might drop a PC softphone when the microcell arrives.
  • RE: The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

    Breaking a device by degrading support (in this case the network) is borderline fraud. Unfortunately, a rapid rolloff in support when newer products are introduced is a familiar occurrence with certain tech fashion items.
    Lester Young
  • RE: The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

    I would love to have an iPhone, but, because Apple chose to move forward with AT&T, they lost me as a potential customer. I have Verizon, and that is enough explanation as to why I don't have an iPhone. Consistant, reliable service vs. AT&T and an iPhone...hmmm, wonder who wins that argument.
  • RE: The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

    You use go-phone? Me too. But I can't get data to work with OS 3. Are we stuck on OS 2?

  • an experiment

    First let me state I'm not an iPhone user.

    Have you tried moving your SIM chip to a newest model of the iPhone to see what happens? Will voice quality be better?

    It's my belief that the SIM is your key to the AT&T system, not the iPhone itself.

    Just wondering...

    Terry Thomas
    Atlanta, Georgia USA
  • I'd buy an iPhone in a heartbeat, EXCEPT...

    ... for issues like this.

    And it's not any better for people outside the US. Try listening to
    Canadian iPhone users; their service is at least as bad as AT&T. Here in
    Second Third World Singapore, competition is tightly controlled,
    especially against government-linked companies (like the monopoly
    provider of the iPhone), so 'customer-last' mentality is the norm. From
    what I've heard talking to people here, there may be as many as 2/3 of
    non-corporate local iPhones that have been jailbroken. I don't want to
    do that for a couple of technical as well as non-technical reasons. I'm
    thrilled with my iTouch, as far as it goes - but I'd really much rather
    have an iPhone that I can use without touching the GLC and without
    voiding my warranty. Until that happens, I'm stuck with a crappier-
    than-crappy Motorola V9 that my telco was giving away with 6-month
    contracts - which are not unusual here. It's a good voice phone, and
    an OK, Bluetooth-capable music player - but the iTouch does that
    better. I've never seen a phone that sucked with such pure vacuum as
    the V9 for text messaging. And I send 20-25 SMS [i]per day[/i]; a bit
    under the local mean.

    I have no problem two-finger-typing (in three languages) on the
    iTouch using Skype or Twitter or whatever. So one of the first things I
    do when I make repeated contact with a client or colleague or friend
    is, 'which IM service do you use, so we don't have to use SMS?'

    Good luck to you AT&T inmates; you'll need it.
    Jeff Dickey
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