AT&T touts network improvements found in study

Spokesman says 'no way' are voice calls dropped as much as previous report says

Gripe all you want about poor cellular service for the iPhone on AT&T, but the carrier says its wireless networks are improving, especially in New York City.

For other areas of the U.S., including downtown San Francisco, where AT&T Inc. has openly acknowledged wireless network problems, performance is also improving, AT&T spokesman Mark Seigel told Computerworld. "We are working very hard in San Francisco and are not quite where we want to be yet," he said.

Siegel cited third-party test results by Global Wireless Solutions Inc. that show dramatic improvements in wireless voice and data performance over the past five years in the New York City area for AT&T as well as Verizon Wireless and other leading carriers.

GWS said voice services were 98% to 99% reliable in the New York City area in April, while data throughput has jumped from 50Kbit/sec. in 2005 to 600Kbit/sec. to 700Kbit/sec. in April, and some 3G networks were averaging 1Mbit/sec. -- a twentyfold improvement from five years earlier. Voice reliability is a measure of the ability to both make a connection and retain it.

Siegel touted the GWS results to point to AT&T's network performance improvements, even as he criticized a recent user survey from ChangeWave in which 4.5% of AT&T users polled reported dropped calls in the prior three months. "No way" are 4.5% of AT&T calls dropped, Siegel said, noting that ChangeWave relied on surveys of users instead of actual network tests.

"That ChangeWave survey is qualitative research and seeking opinions," Siegel said. "GWS is a quantitative study, and it actually measures the performance of the networks -- not only ours but other carriers' -- in New York City over the last few years."

Siegel wouldn't comment directly on the finding by ChangeWave that 53% of Verizon Wireless customers said they would be very likely or somewhat likely to buy an iPhone should Verizon begin offering it. However, Siegel noted that AT&T had won the right to be the exclusive carrier of the iPhone in the U.S. from Apple Inc. for good reason. "The facts speak for themselves," he said. "We've offered it exclusively since 2007."

The iPhone is "just one part of our mobile phone mix," Siegel said. "We have a very wide and deep portfolio." However, he did call the iPhone an "important" part of that portfolio and acknowledged that in the last quarter Apple's smartphone accounted one-third of the gross total of new AT&T subscribers.

Changewave's survey of 4,000 users nonetheless put AT&T at the lower end of customer satisfaction. Just 23% the users responding to the Changewave survey said that they are very satisfied with AT&T's cellular service, putting the carrier into a tie with T-Mobile USA, well behind Verizon at 49% and Sprint Nextel at 35%.

Various consumer groups and analysts have condemned AT&T's cellular service openly. For example, Brian Marshall, a financial analyst at BroadPoint AmTech, called AT&T's service "god awful." IDC analyst Scott Ellison last fall said "AT&T has immolated itself with network capacity issues."

Marshall also noted that despite AT&T's poor network reputation, the company was able to negotiate a six-month extension on its iPhone exclusive contract that many thought would expire this summer. As a result, he and others have said Verizon might have the iPhone in the first quarter of 2011.

Marshall said AT&T offered a cut-rate deal on the data plan for the iPad in exchange for an extension on the iPhone exclusivity.

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.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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