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

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

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.

Windsor also said that it's unlikely the problem, if it is chip-based, could be fixed by a software update from Apple.

Others blame AT&T for a poorly-designed 3G network or insufficient capacity to handle the flood of calls -- and especially data -- as iPhone 3Gs continue to fly off store shelves.

Still others pointed fingers elsewhere. The Swedish engineering weekly Ny Teknik last week cited a study by unnamed mobile experts alleging that some handsets, including Apple's, had a substandard signal sensitivity. The supposed cause: an unspecified problem somewhere between the antenna and the signal amplifier. The original article is here, in Swedish; a rough translation via Google can be found here.

That's a lot of reasons. Anything else you want to toss into the pot? Sure, why not?

While Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates, said it could be some -- or several -- of the possibilities cited above, he offered up a bunch more potential causes. "We are dealing with high-frequency radio waves," Gold said in an e-mail on Friday. "Lots of things make them work or not work. Even people's sweaty hands could have an effect, or how close they hold the device to their heads, or what direction they are pointing the phone."

What's Apple doing? Apple's not talking -- its usual stance -- but a report in BusinessWeek last Friday said sources close to the issue claimed Apple was working on a firmware update that would fix the problems.

Such an update would be carried out through the normal iPhone update process, which requires the phone to be connected to a Mac or PC, from which iTunes -- an integral part of the iPhone ecosystem -- downloads updates and then installs them to the iPhone.

Apple has updated the first-generation iPhone five times -- 1.1 through 1.3, then 2.0 in July and 2.0.1 earlier this month -- and updated the iPhone 3G's firmware just the once, to 2.0.1 on Aug. 4. The company provided no details about what the 2.0.1 update contained, however.

If a firmware update is the fix, when will Apple roll it out? Again, Apple's not talking, but reports on enthusiast and technology sites such as AppleInsider have reported ongoing releases of iPhone 2.1 betas to testers, most recently a week ago.

What's unknown, however, is whether a 2.1 update will include a reception fix. AppleInsider hinted that the focus would be on other issues, including the iPhone's relatively new background push-notification service and Global Positioning System support within the iPhone 3G.

Bottom line: It's conceivable that Apple has diagnosed the reception and dropped call bugs and that it can produce a fix soon, but it's also possible that an update is weeks or months away. That's Apple.... You never know, since the company won't discuss much of anything, certainly not details of updates, before they're released.

The only definitive date on Apple's iPhone calendar is Aug. 22, this coming Friday, when the company will unveil the iPhone 3G in another 20-plus markets. Apple has a history of doing software updates when it launches a new version of hardware, so it's possible that the Aug. 22 debut in new countries will coincide with a firmware fix.

Is everyone convinced a firmware update to the iPhone will do the trick? Nope.

For example, Gold said he doubts that a firmware fix is the answer. "I'd be surprised if it is as simple as a firmware upgrade of the chip, so it is more likely that existing devices will have this defect forever," he wrote in an e-mail to Computerworld.

What's AT&T doing? The mobile operator, which is Apple's exclusive partner in the U.S. market, has not admitted that a widespread problem exists, but spokesmen for the firm have acknowledged complaints from customers. They insisted that the numbers are small.

In fact, AT&T is still in the process of expanding its 3G network in the U.S. to the 350 cities it has promised to serve by the end of the year. Last month, when it released its second-quarter earnings, AT&T said that it had 3G service in about 300 U.S. metropolitan areas. At the time, the company claimed it was beginning work on boosting 3G capacity. "AT&T also has started doubling the data capacity of its 3G markets, and nearly half of all cell sites will receive additional 3G capacity by the end of the year," AT&T said in a July statement.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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