Perhaps 3G isnít what itís cracked up to be
Last week, I wrote a story that compared the 3G networks of AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ, NYSE:VOD) metric-to-metric based on a data collected by an independent wireless performance measurement firm. The data showed that in seven major markets where both AT&T and VZW offer 3G service, AT&T had the superior network in almost all categories. Many of you didnít like what you read ó and I can understand that.
The data, which you can see in detail on the Unfiltered blog, seems to contradict my own and a good deal of the practical experiences of AT&T 3G subscribers ó particular iPhone users ó across the country. Just take a look at the commentary. While there are a few posting sympathetic to AT&T, most of expressed disbelief in Rootís conclusions. Many related their own bad experiences with the AT&T network ó and not just those in areas where AT&T doesnít offer 3G service. People in Denver, New York and San Francisco ó all markets where AT&Tís performance data indicates good coverage and adequate capacity ó reported a lack of coverage and capacity. A couple of readers pointed to other user survey studies from Consumer Reports and JD Power & Associates that ranked customer satisfaction with VZW high and AT&T low. Others questioned whether Root had an ax to grind with Verizon or a business relationship with AT&T. (Iíll address those concerns further down.)
So how to you reconcile these two perspectives? On one side, we have hard performance data based on network testing, and on the other we have reams of empirical data based on user experiences. I have trouble making that reconciliation without it seeming like mere rationalization, but if I could offer up one possible argument Ö itís the iPhone. Most of the complaints I see about the AT&T network center squarely on the iPhoneís 3G performance, and the iPhone is no ordinary smartphone. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) created an extraordinary device, which people ó myself included ó are using in ways and with more frequency than theyíve used any other smartphone in the past. The browsing capabilities of the iPhone in particular are advanced enough that many people are trying to use their iPhones for online tasks they never would have contemplated with another device. Iíve used the iPhone browser to remotely check into flights, order farm share groceries online, and research recipes for liver and onions and braised brisket. Iím sure I could have performed many of these tasks on another smartphone, but in my experience the limitations and ungainliness of other phonesí mobile browsers have dissuaded me from trying.
The point is that in creating the iPhone, Apple created a new set of expectations for data performance on the smartphone ó expectations that itís becoming increasingly obvious the AT&T 3G network canít meet. AT&T has millions of iPhone users, all with these raised expectations. Meanwhile, Verizon has nothing comparable, at least not yet. If the Droid proves as popular as the operator hopes it will, it might not only find that its data traffic will shoot up, but that its customers will suddenly establish a new standard of reliability and consistency they expect Verizon to meet. So if I were to reach any conclusion from Rootís 3G study, itís not that AT&T provides a good 3G experience on my iPhone, but rather that no one could provide the 3G experience necessary to match the iPhone capabilities. At 4G World in September, Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow said that a device as powerful as the iPhone should have been built for 4G networks rather than 3G networks. Perhaps heís right.
One last thing: A few readers questioned the objectivity of the data Root compiled, pointing out that executives at Root worked for AT&T in the past and asking whether or not the data was collected as part of a contract with AT&T. In my interview with Ron Dicklin, co-founder and chief technology officer for Root, he immediately offered up his former connections with AT&T Wireless (pre-Cingular merger days), but he also said that while working as an engineer for that operator he became increasingly frustrated with the way AT&T and carriers used data to make any sort of claims about their network performance. Dicklin said that experience led directly to the founding of Root, with the aim of providing an independent of source of data for customers ó rather than operators ó to use. While Iím sure if it is possible that AT&T could buy data from Root, I find it highly unlikely that it would manipulate the data in AT&Tís favor. Rootís primary customers are third parties like CNET, and its business model is dependent on providing objective metrics so customers can evaluate carriers. If it was a tool of the operators, it doesnít seem like Root would have much of a business.
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