AT&T-iPhone calling woes on redial

Report by CNET's Elinor Mills touches a nerve, with hundreds of iPhone users from around the country sharing their frustrations.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
9 min read

When I sat down to write an article about the unreliable cell reception my iPhone gets on Monday, I knew I wasn't alone in my frustration. Friends and acquaintances often joke that the iPhone is a cool computer but a lousy phone.

But judging from the response I received from the "AT&T takes the phone out of iPhone" story published on Tuesday, I definitely struck a nerve with a lot of iPhone users, not just in San Francisco but around the country. The overwhelming majority of them reported similar problems of frequent and consistent dropped calls and garbled conversations, and even delays with voice messages and voice mail being inaccessible.

Within one work day the article generated more than 300 comments and 150 e-mails, more feedback volume than any story I've written before. I spent much of the day reading them and doing some additional reporting and I've come to some basic understandings that I'd like to share:

This is not a San Francisco-only problem
I neglected to mention in the original story that I never, repeat never get reliable reception on my iPhone in either of my parents' homes in Phoenix. Fortunately the weather is usually pleasant and I can easily step outside to talk.

Meanwhile, criticism of iPhone reception came in from people in dozens of locations. Numerous complaints came from cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Seattle, Denver, and Charlotte, N.C. There were complaints from people in Texas, Arizona, Oregon, South Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Colorado, Washington, Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Utah, Montana, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and even Oahu, among other locales.

"What really sucks is that I can circumnavigate the mean back streets of New Delhi with iPhone in hand, email specific scriptures from my ibible or scan songs I've never heard before in a restaurant to find out who the artist is, yet I cannot conduct a PHONE conversation in my own living room or even from my home office while looking out a south-facing window into bright sunshine! I drop 8 out of 10 calls, and sometimes don't get voicemails until a DAY later," wrote a Tulsa, Okla., reader.

"This sounds like a joke, but it is an actual fact: I get better reception and service for my iPhone in a grain silo in my grandmother's rural Indiana farm than I do in my bedroom in Los Angeles. Seriously," wrote another person.

"Recently I was in the emergency room with mother for 12 hours. I had no cell service. Now I have an iPhone 3G and a Blackberry Curve, both with AT&T. Neither worked. Yet the lady next to my mother and a woman across from us both had perfect service. One used Sprint, the other Verizon," another reader wrote.

A San Luis Obispo, Calif., reader said he gets no iPhone 3G reception on many stretches of Highway 101.

"Last Friday I was heading south on 101 at the Cuesta Grade and got stuck in a nightmarish traffic jam due to an accident at the base of the grade," he wrote. "I tried calling my wife to let her know that I was going to be late, but guess what? No cell coverage. That's not the half of it...Apparently a bit up the grade from me, a 71-year-old man had a heart attack...A family member tried calling 911 but as the (San Luis Obispo Tribune) indicated, the call failed. The family member actually flagged down a CHP helicopter that was covering the accident to get help."

Some people complained that even though AT&T claims the coverage in their area is good, their first-hand experience indicates otherwise. A handful said they dropped AT&T and the iPhone because of the poor reception. A couple of people said they chose to modify their iPhones (also known as jailbreaking) so that they could use them on a different carrier's network and that the reception was vastly improved.

"I live in Columbia, SC---no big city here. My damn iPhone drops calls about 75 percent of the time inside my house," wrote another reader. "Definitely an issue with ATTs network, not my house. ATTs web map for the city claims excellent coverage (joke)."

One New Yorker was so moved by the issue that he wrote a letter to AT&T voicing his complaints and then made a video about his experience.

Several Canada iPhone users said they get good reception from Rogers Communications, but one U.K.-based reader said that on the network of iPhone carrier O2 he can't make calls at peak times and voice mails and texts can take more than an hour to arrive.

Not everyone who provided feedback reported a negative experience, but the ratio was about 5-to-1 in agreement with my experience or similar problems. People seemed genuinely grateful to find out that they weren't alone in experiencing these troubles.

It's not just a problem with the iPhone
About two dozen people reported that they had problems with other phones on the AT&T network than the iPhone, and a few noted that other carrier networks also have problems, too.

"You'd have the same problem with any phone using AT&T service," Andrew Seybold, a wireless consultant with Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Andrew Seybold Inc., said in an interview. "In other parts of the country people complain about other networks more than they do about AT&T. It's a very regional thing."

Seybold and Roger Entner, head of telecom research at Nielsen, said AT&T and others were doing what they could to improve the reception situation. But the carriers have been hindered in their efforts by reluctant and slow-moving municipalities whose residents don't want additional cell sites to be installed either because they are unsightly or because of health concerns about the radio frequency emissions, they said.

"In defense of AT&T and all the networks, they have billion-dollar budgets to add more cell sites to get better coverage and add more capacity, but because of city and county planning commission stuff it takes two to three years in most places in the country to get a new cell site put in," Seybold said.

"There is a federal law that says you can't inhibit these towers, but nobody wants to have it in their backyard. But they all want to have perfect wireless service and it doesn't work," Entner said in an interview. "Frequently, the carriers have to go to court to build a tower."

Jonas Ionin, who is with the San Francisco Planning Department, disagreed with that characterization of the situation.

"It is not fair to categorize it (the problem) as the process that's been set up," he said. "I think they are maybe overzealous in their time frame."

San Francisco officials have been working with AT&T to expedite the process to help the carrier meet its commitment to Apple so that new apps roll out by a certain date, according to Ionin. "Their 3G marketing service didn't live up to its billing," he said.

Meanwhile, the city hasn't received a lot of new applications from carriers for new cell sites but has seen applications for modifications to existing sites, he added.

Thick, concrete walls are likely blocking my reception
I found out from an AT&T customer support representative on the phone that my home in San Francisco is in an area with good cell coverage and that I am located right in the middle of four sites, an estimated half-mile away from the nearest one.

"Radio waves don't penetrate building walls very well and if you have tinted windows in an office building, that's near death to a radio signal," said Seybold. "Maybe you're not close enough to a cell site, but you are also competing with others in your area" for reception.

Entner speculated that the calls are dropping as the system tries to offload demand from a cell site I'm using that is getting overwhelmed with peak traffic to another nearby that has less demand at the time. Conversations get garbled when there is an inadequate transfer of the call from one cell site to another.

AT&T is increasing its 850MHz band frequency, which travels longer distances than the current 1900MHz frequency and is better able to penetrate into buildings. But licenses for 850MHz are not automatically granted, according to Seybold, and it's unclear whether that is an option in my neighborhood.

Since the AT&T customer service representative said the company doesn't plan to erect any additional cell sites in my neighborhood, I may have to just wait until AT&T offers a MicroCell signal booster they call femtocell that works by using a customer's home broadband network. The device, which costs $150, is being tested in a public market trial in Charlotte, N.C.

Supposedly there are ways for neighbors to piggyback off the signal, just like with a Wi-Fi, but Seybold said his understanding is that there is a way to secure it.

In the meantime, I could use a Zboost, a type of cell signal booster device that extends coverage in buildings and cars, according to a spokeswoman for the company that makes them, Wi-Ex.

"There's no network in the U.S. that's going to provide adequate indoor coverage for everybody," Seybold said.

AT&T doesn't typically offer refunds for outages, and frequent problems like mine
One reader wrote that he got a $50 refund after complaining to AT&T about his poor iPhone reception, but I had no such luck when I called the company.

"That's not something we're allowed to credit for per our policy," the customer service representative told me when I asked. "Even if the service outage was for three or four days, or a week," he said, noting that customers in Kentucky were not given refunds after an outage caused by a bad ice storm.

Many of my remaining questions, like why exactly I have reception problems and when the femtocell will be available in San Francisco, remain unanswered as I awaited word back from AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel, who had repeatedly insisted that my complaints and those of other iPhone users were not newsworthy. (He claims the increased data traffic from iPhone 3G users is affecting performance, but I use a first-generation iPhone that runs on a different network than does the 3G and on which data and voice traffic are separated.)

I can be patient. I already have been.

A good friend asked me why it took me one and a half years of inadequate iPhone reception to get frustrated enough to cover the issue. I likened the situation to a new boyfriend who so distracts you with his good looks, charm, and intellect that for a while you don't really notice that he's cheating on you--and when you do notice, you keep hoping it will change. However, a relationship that is unreliable and untrustworthy eventually takes its toll, no matter how good other aspects may be.

The honeymoon is definitely over for me and my iPhone, although I'm not sure I'm ready to break up just yet.

Update 7:50 a.m. PDT: I asked Seybold if he consults for AT&T or any other carriers and he said: "I have often but NOT in the area of coverage and have no contracts at this time." I also added that my handset is a first-generation iPhone.

Update 8:50 a.m. PDT: AT&T's Siegel said the company's network technicians have investigated my situation and that of my boyfriend who gets extremely poor 3G iPhone reception in his home. The fact that I live on a hill could be posing challenges to the wireless signal propagation, Siegel wrote in an e-mail.

"Our folks were able to do some fine tuning and you should begin to see a reduction in dropped calls," he said. "We also looked at your friend's location, which I am told is in the Twin Peaks area--apparently a very challenging location for signal propagation. We will continue to see what we can do."

Updated 11:45 a.m. PDT: with Entner explaining how calls can get dropped and garbled.

Correction 3:57 p.m. PDT: This post initially misstated the relative distances the two radio frequencies travel. 850 MHz frequency travels longer distances than 1900 MHz.