The iPhone Telephony Tragedy

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...


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