Verizon routs AT&T on dropped iPhone calls

Satisfaction ratings close, but AT&T iPhone owners report more than double the number of disconnects

iPhone owners on AT&T experience two-and-a-half times the number of dropped calls than do users of Apple's smartphone on Verizon, a market research company said today.

According to a survey by ChangeWave Research, AT&T iPhone owners reported that 4.8% of their calls were dropped in the last 90 days, compared to just 1.8% of calls their Verizon counterparts said had been dropped.

ChangeWave wrapped up the survey of more than 4,000 U.S. consumers on March 28, more than six weeks after Verizon introduced the iPhone to its network.

The results were in line with reports by cellphone owners in general of a higher dropped call rate on AT&T.

In ChangeWave's surveys, AT&T has regularly ranked fourth out of the four major U.S. mobile carriers on dropped call rates, with phone owners reporting that AT&T dropped 4.6% of their calls. Verizon dropped just 1.4% of calls in the most recent poll, said ChangeWave, with T-Mobile and Sprint logging rates of 2.3& and 2.7%, respectively.

AT&T has announced plans to buy rival T-Mobile for $39 billion in cash and stock, an acquisition that must pass regulatory muster. Sprint opposes the buyout.

ChangeWave has tracked dropped call rates since September 2008, and during that time AT&T's number has always exceeded Verizon's. AT&T's dropped call rate has been as high as 6%, when it peaked in a September 2010 poll conducted in the aftermath of what Apple CEO Steve Jobs called "Antennagate."

That brouhaha, which started shortly after the introduction of the iPhone 4 last June, revolved around a flood of customer complaints that the new smartphone dropped calls and could not reliably hold a signal when it was held in certain ways.

In a hastily-called July 2010 news conference, Jobs acknowledged AT&T had reported higher dropped call rates for the new iPhone, but downplayed the difference.

Paul Carton, ChangeWave's director of research, said the improvement of AT&T's dropped call rate since -- it's fallen in each of the last two surveys -- could be attributed to the billions the carrier spent in 2010 on network improvements.

"[AT&T] made that announcement last September when it was well into the upgrade," said Carton in an interview Tuesday. "Since then, we're starting to see the significant positive change [in the dropped call rates]."

And Carton offered a caveat on Verizon's dropped call rate.

"Verizon is still in the early stages of its iPhone 4 offering to consumers," said Paul Carton, the company's director of research, in a published note. "It remains to be seen how well the Verizon network performs as the number of Verizon iPhone 4 owners ramps up and inevitably puts more pressure on their system."

While iPhone owners on AT&T and Verizon are equally pleased with their smartphones -- 80% of the former said they were "very satisfied" with their smartphone, while 82% of the latter said the same -- more people planning to buy an iPhone in the next three months will head to Verizon.

Of those who said they will purchase an iPhone 4, 46% said they would go with Verizon, 27% said they would use AT&T's network.

Carton said those numbers likely reflected the initial push by Verizon to get iPhone customers, and that the difference between the two carriers may narrow in the coming months.

"But this validates Verizon's decision to go into the Apple market," said Carton of the latest poll showing a preference by future iPhone buyers for the carrier. "It's shows it was.

ChangeWave's surveys echo the conclusion of others, including Consumer Reports magazine, which last year ranked AT&T dead last among five U.S. carriers.

In the publication's poll of over 58,000 consumers, AT&T's voice quality, which indicates the percentage of people who experienced call problems, was rated lowest of the five. Verizon's voice quality was ranked second, behind U.S. Cellular, a carrier available in 26 states.

AT&T declined to comment on ChangeWave's survey results.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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