Blame the iPhone's 3G network woes on you, me

No, really, it's all of our own iPhones that are causing all the AT&T network problems. Here's why.

Matt Hickey
With more than 15 years experience testing hardware (and being obsessed with it), Crave freelance writer Matt Hickey can tell the good gadgets from the great. He also has a keen eye for future technology trends. Matt has blogged for publications including TechCrunch, CrunchGear, and most recently, Gizmodo. Matt is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CBS Interactive. E-mail Matt.
Matt Hickey
6 min read
Lots of apps means lots of data. Matt Hickey

There's been a lot of talk lately of AT&T customers--especially iPhone users--getting fed up with the quality of service they're getting with AT&T. Issues include dropped calls, shoddy coverage, and slow data speeds. People are upset that they have a fancy device that loses much of its usefulness when the network drops out. I can feel their pain.

Indeed, I saw the effect myself this last weekend. The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), one of the world's largest gaming conventions, took place in Seattle, where I live. Thousands of the world's nerdiest nerds were here, and, as you'd expect, many were using iPhones, meaning many were using AT&T's 3G service.

PAX, which opened Friday, also had a handy guide on expojunkie.com for convention goers made especially for the iPhone. It featured maps, agendas, and other quick reference information to make PAX a better experience. The side effect was thousands of visitors using Seattle's 3G coverage at the same time--in addition to the thousands of locals who already use it. Service slowed to a crawl.

By Saturday, the service was back up-to-speed for most of Seattle. AT&T may have hit a switch and turned on more towers. It has a team that monitors areas with major events and tweaks the network when one causes problems. Whatever the company did fixed it.

The blessing and the curse
But here's the question: what are we to expect from AT&T when Apple sells millions of units of a revolutionary product that depends on its network and then provides millions of apps that put a huge burden on the same network? Do we really expect AT&T to be able to handle that much data?

The easy answer is, "Yes. We pay for the service, we want it to work correctly." Which, of course, is a fine answer. Users of the iPhone pay more for their data than other AT&T smartphone customers (we're leaving regular phone customers out of the debate, even those who use data, for simplicity's sake).

But iPhone users also use far more data per device than other users, even those on the same network. One technology analyst, Chetan Sharma, estimates that while the typical wireless subscriber consumes 120MB per month, typical iPhone owners use four times that. That's 480MB, or almost half a gigabyte.

So let's take that data at face value and then consider that AT&T has 11.8 million smartphone users and more than 9 million iPhone users. So there are almost as many iPhone users as standard smartphone users, but each uses four times more data than the smartphone users.

Sure, there are other smartphones out there. And most have downloadable, third-party apps. And many of those are data-intensive. But here's the thing about iPhone users: they actually use their apps. Smartphones have been around for quite a while, but iPhone users actually stream video, browse the Web often, and get directions. It could be argued that nobody has ever done as much with a device as iPhone users do. And that's the blessing and the curse.

Simply put, because of iPhone users, AT&T simply has far and away more demand for data than its competitors. AT&T currently has more capacity as well, which is why the iPhones work at all. If not for the rapid deployment of system upgrades--it has spent billions over the last two years to try to keep up with the 350 percent increase in traffic--then the million of iPhones on AT&T simply wouldn't work at all.

The problem as I see it isn't AT&T, which is clearly working as fast as it can. I'm putting the blame squarely on the iPhone users themselves. And I'm one of them.

I'll admit it, I'm part of the problem. Matt Hickey

No other network could keep up with the demand that we iPhone users are asking for better than what AT&T is doing right now.

Out of the frying pan...
You can find many entries in online forums where people cry, "Forget AT&T, I'm going to Verizon!" or something equally angry. But they're not getting the big picture: by switching you'll lose your beloved iPhone, but you'll also be on a network which, if it gets the iPhone soon as rumored, could end up having the exact same problems AT&T is now, perhaps even worse.

Think about it: if the other networks are so much better service-wise, but AT&T has more data capacity, why is there a problem? It's the iPhone.

One unanswered question is this: Did Apple consult with AT&T about bandwidth considerations before launching the App Store, which undoubtedly is responsible for a lot of the data AT&T is pushing?

If so, then yes, AT&T has a responsibility to beef up its network to compensate, which it is doing. Any network connection can be overtaxed. Sometimes I wish my BitTorrent downloads would go faster, but when my neighbors are also downloading, it affects me, too. But I don't blame Comcast.

If, though, Apple didn't consult with AT&T before launching the App Store, then it's hard to blame AT&T for not being able to cope with the massive amount of unexpected data. And it's definitely not fair.

Another option, and one that bridges these two answers, and the one I feel is the most likely, is that it's possible that both AT&T and Apple misjudged the amount of data-intensive apps that would be made available in such a short time.

Indeed, most in the industry have been surprised by the success of the App Store, which in roughly a year delivered more than 1.5 billion apps to iPhone and iPod Touch users. If Apple and AT&T had expected that kind of reaction it would be reasonable to be angry at AT&T for not being able to keep up with demand. But if not then, again, it's the users themselves who are bogging down their own network.

Imagine AT&T's 3G to be an all-you-can-eat buffet. Say this buffet has 110 customers a day. Now imagine a normal person will make three trips to the buffet, and then the iPhone users come. There are 90 of them--in addition to the 110 customers already being served--and they're making the equivalent of 12 trips a day to the buffet. Each. This is because they are data gluttons. Suddenly there's not enough food to go around because the gluttons (again, I'm one too) are eating more than anyone else had expected. Would it be the fault of the restaurant that it's out of prime rib and mashed potatoes?

AT&T: We're working around the clock
I don't think so. Especially considering that iPhone users are sticking around day after day. AT&T spokesman Seth Bloom, the company's "Blogger Guy," says the buffet is ordering more prime rib and mashed potatoes--to the tune of $17 billion to $18 billion this year alone.

He also says AT&T expects that 3G network capacity will match the growing user demand for data soon. "Crews are working around the clock to implement more than 1,900 new cell towers nation wide and doubling its fiber backbone to take up the rising customer volume," he told me over instant message.

This line of thinking won't quiet the critics, of course; it's easy and fast to lambast your cell carriers on the Internet. It's easy to insult me, too (I'm sure I'll get my share of slams for this post), and I'm not trying to calm those people down. I don't think anything can.

Should AT&T have anticipated this amount of demand? Perhaps. But it's still the iPhone users themselves who are causing the problems they're experiencing. In the near future the situation will be fixed, according to Bloom, and jumping ship isn't going to help your situation any.