Sprint customers complain of slow network speeds with iPhone 4S

Officially, Sprint sees 'opportunities to optimize performance'

Slow performance on the Sprint network with the new iPhone 4S has led customers to consider returning the Apple devices before Friday, when Sprint's early termination fee of up to $350 will take effect.

Complaints of slow network performance with the iPhone 4S began appearing on Sprint's community Web thread on Oct. 14, the first day the device went on sale. Customers said Sprint's network speeds were too slow to support YouTube videos, loading of Google maps or even the new Siri voice application in iPhone 4S.

Similar complaints have ensued in recent days, with more than 61 pages of network problems recorded on the discussion thread "iPhone 4S on 3G data network too slow to be useful" by hundreds of users by early Tuesday.

A recent complaint by a user called "fridge09" from San Antonio, showed an iPhone 4S -- on Sprint's 3G CDMA/EV-DO Rev. A network -- getting a download speed of .20 Mbps, compared to a HTC Evo 4G, with 4G turned off and running on the same 3G network, getting 1.52 Mbps -- more than seven times faster.

"What's wrong with my iPhone?" fridge09 asked, adding that a switch back to AT&T's network might be in order.

Another commenter, Banned-True, wrote late Monday that if the iPhone 4S is not returned within the 14-day return period, "Sprint will not budge on the ETF." The commenter added, "Do yourselves a favor, return your phone now before the 14 days are up." Similar comments from others have also been made.

Sprint's return policy is outlined on its website as being 14 days following a purchase, which would be the end of the day Thursday for an iPhone 4S purchased on the first day of sale, Oct. 14. Also on its website, Sprint says in fine print (click on "Your agreement with us" at the lower left of the page to view it) that an early termination fee of up to $350 "may apply" for the iPhone 4S, which Sprint also advertises as offering "Blazing speeds with unlimited data." The fine print also says that the ETF won't be applied for two-year contract agreements that are "cancelled in compliance with Sprint's Return Policy" of 14 days.

According to the lengthy Sprint community discussion thread, many iPhone 4S customers have been told when calling Sprint service reps that there is a nationwide problem with slowdowns on Sprint's network. However, some customers have said they've been told the problems are related to individual towers that affect all of Sprint's phones, not just the iPhone 4S, while others reported seeing network speed improvements in recent days.

Some comments report that Sprint reps have said the problems will be fixed by midday Thursday, although Sprint corporate officials haven't officially acknowledged any specific problems with the network or iPhone 4S speeds.

In an emailed statement to Computerworld early Tuesday, a Sprint spokeswoman said that overall iPhone performance on Sprint's network "is consistent with our expectations and the rest of our high-end [smartphone] portfolio." She added, however, that "we do see opportunities to optimize performance, specifically in high network capacity areas."

The statement also says Sprint has seen a "very low return rate" on the iPhone 4S but is "watching the reports of speed issues very closely."

Here is the full statement that Sprint provided:

"Overall, iPhone performance on the Sprint network is consistent with our expectations and the rest of our high-end portfolio. Sprint also did benchmarking of Sprint's iPhone against competitors' iPhones, and the testing showed little to no performance difference. We are seeing a very low return rate for this device, but we are watching the reports of speed issues very closely. We do see opportunities to optimize performance, specifically in high network capacity areas. We see this as typical optimization work and do not have any specific area of concern. Sprint is committed to providing the best possible experience for our customers. We are listening to our customers and working closely with our partners at Apple to ensure optimal performance of iPhone devices on our network."

The Sprint spokeswoman said she has not seen an alleged internal Sprint email referenced by various websites, including The Next Web, which reportedly says there is a confirmed nationwide issue with slow data rates on the iPhone 4S on Sprint.

The Next Web's story suggested that a software patch in the form of a "Service Settings" update for the iPhone 4S could surface from Apple and Sprint to change the phone's program file that affects how the phone connects to the network. Sprint did not comment on that suggestion, however, and Apple did not respond to a request to comment.

Sprint officials told reporters and analysts on Oct. 7, a week before the iPhone 4S went on sale, that the Sprint network was ready to handle network traffic from the new device.

AT&T ran into widespread problems with providing voice and data service to the iPhone when it initially appeared four years ago. Verizon Wireless customers also complained of problems with the iPhone 4 when it went on sale there earlier this year.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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