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FAQ: iPhone 3G reception -- What's the problem?

Complaints of dropped calls, weak signals and slow data speeds reach critical mass

August 16, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Apple Inc.'s iPhone 3G was just a couple of days old when reports began trickling onto the company's support forum from dissatisfied customers.

"I am suppose to be in a strong 3G coverage area at home, [but] I only have one bar," said user Doug Clements in a message posted July 13. "Traveling around town (Sacramento area), my 3G coverage changes dramatically. From 1 bar to full bars? Not sure if its working properly or not."

Within a month, what had started as a few news reports grew dramatically, with several prominent newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today adding their voices to the chorus.

What's going on? We may not have all the answers, but we do have questions. Here's our take on the griping about iPhone 3G reception.

What's the beef about? Users started complaining about poor reception -- lousy signal strength, dropped calls and slow data speeds -- just days after the iPhone 3G's July 11 debut.

Those complaints have filled Apple's support forum with nearly 2,000 messages in a series of three long threads, the first two of which were shut down because they were too long for some browsers to load. (This is the current thread open for comment; the first two are here and here.)

The complaints can be summarized as follows:

  • Weak 3G signals in areas supposedly flush with 3G, and/or in places where other 3G-enabled phones on AT&T Inc.'s network have no problem acquiring a strong signal.
  • Consistently dropped calls, often as the iPhone automatically switches from 3G to EDGE when the user moves between coverage areas.
  • Slower-than-expected Web browsing that doesn't match Apple's claim that 3G gives users a 2.4X speed boost over EDGE.

Whom should I blame? Take your pick:

  • Apple
  • AT&T
  • Both
  • Someone else

Okay, smart guy, really, what causes the problems?

Although no one outside of Apple and AT&T -- and maybe a chip maker or two -- really knows, that hasn't kept others from speculating or, in a few cases, making claims based on unnamed sources.

According to BusinessWeek's Peter Burrows, who cited a pair of unnamed sources, the iPhone 3G's troubles stem from a faulty chip or chip set from Infineon Technologies AG, a major mobile chip designer and manufacturer.

Burrows' story echoed comments made earlier in the week by Richard Windsor, a Wall Street analyst at Nomura Securities International Inc., who put out a research note last Tuesday that also laid the blame on Infineon. "We believe that these issues are typical of an immature chip set and radio protocol stack where we are almost certain that Infineon is the 3G supplier," Windsor said in that note.

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