Could iPhone's data rate be a fly in the ointment?

EDGE network browsing might slow down some users

Early reviews of the iPhone, while overwhelmingly positive, point to one potential major weakness: the relatively slow EDGE wireless network from AT&T Inc. that the device uses for data transfers.

While many data applications, such as e-mail, are reported by early iPhone reviewers to work quickly over EDGE, they have lamented the iPhone's Internet browsing ability.

For example, based on two weeks' of tests, The Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg called it a "major drawback," while The New York Times' David Pogue called EDGE "excruciatingly slow," meaning it took him two minutes to launch the Yahoo site and 100 seconds to launch

Reviewers -- and some analysts -- have wondered why the iPhone wasn't designed to work with a faster network such as AT&T's HSDPA, which is up to 10 times faster than EDGE. EDGE, which stands for Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution, is a 2.5G technology, advertised as offering download speeds of 70Kbit/sec. to 135Kbit/sec. HSDPA, which stands for High Speed Downlink Packet Access, is a much newer 3G technology that supports download speeds of 400Kbit/sec. to 700Kbit/sec. It serves as the basis of AT&T's BroadbandConnect branded service.

The main explanation from AT&T and Apple Inc. for using EDGE is its network reach, which is much greater than HSDPA. "EDGE is the largest, reaching 270 million people, 50 million more than any other high-speed network," said Mark Siegel, spokesman for AT&T in an interview. "Apple wanted to use it."

Apple CEO Steve Jobs made the same point in an interview with the Journal, also noting that EDGE relies on GSM (Global System for Mobile), which is used in 80% of the world.

Siegel said rigorous EDGE test results by industry testing groups show it is "second to none." He said that a Consumer Reports survey from January showing "middling to low" customer satisfaction for AT&T Wireless was based on surveys of readers, "which is a little different than our very rigorous testing with live testers." AT&T has also invested more than $16 billion since 2005 in improvements to all its networks, a point that impressed Apple, he noted.

"People using iPhone on the EDGE network are going to have a fantastic experience because of the unique way iPhone caches data," Siegel said. "It will enable people to get what they want very quickly, such as a stock quote in a second or two and weather, while e-mail may be even faster."

Siegel did recognize the browsing difficulty as well. "But when you browse the Internet on this device, you'll get the real Internet, not a truncated version, which is very different from most phones. You go to the real CNN."

The complexity of a Web site could "make the downloading not as fast," Siegel said. "When you go to a site, there is a lot more that affects how quickly you are able to access it than the theoretical speed of the wireless network."

Reviewers and Siegel noted that many iPhone users will run data over Wi-Fi networks that operate faster than 3G cellular. "It is not noted enough that iPhone is Wi-Fi compatible," Siegel said. "Some people have Wi-Fi in their homes."

Siegel and Apple officials would not comment on whether there are plans to support HSDPA or another 3G network in the next generation of iPhone.

The current release, in stores Friday at 6 p.m. local time, cannot be altered to work with 3G, according to analysts. "The user is stuck in go-slow mode for the foreseeable future," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates LLC in Northboro, Mass. "The dirty little secret is that when Apple comes out with the faster phone, you will have to buy a new one to get increased speeds, unless they offer some form of trade-in."

Gold said the only way a user could increase the speed over EDGE with the current iPhone "is perhaps using it at 3 a.m. when no one else is trying to use the same cell tower connection" since it is a shared connection and more users results in slower speeds.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said Apple is already developing the second generation of iPhone, which will probably have new technologies. But enhancing it for 3G networks could burn up the battery, he noted.

"The problem is that phones with HSDPA generally consume about 30% more battery, and that is why Research In Motion has backed off the technology for now," Dulaney said. "It could be a killer for Apple to make iPhone into more than a Wi-Fi Web terminal for now."

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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