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Apple, AT&T mum on iPhone 3G issues

A month after the launch of the iPhone 3G, reception problems continue to plague owners with dropped calls, poor networking speeds, and frustrating customer service experiences.

7 min read

Note: CNET News' Tom Krazit and Marguerite Reardon co-wrote this article.

After his third iPhone 3G continued to cut him off in the middle of his conversations, Ryan Shaw had seen enough.

"The phone was a disappointment from the standpoint that it couldn't maintain a consistent connection with the 3G network...All the other features were fantastic," said Shaw, a sales professional living in a Cleveland suburb. But those other features weren't enough to prevent him from returning to Verizon and the BlackBerry after deciding the hassle just wasn't worth it.

Widespread complaints about the iPhone 3G's reception have spread across the Internet in the month since Apple and AT&T released the successor to the original iPhone. The companies insist that nothing is wrong, but the complaints have been mounting through e-mails, water-cooler discussions, and message boards on Apple's own Web site: iPhone 3G users are having trouble connecting, and staying connected, to the 3G networks in their areas.

A month after the release of the iPhone 3G, users are still reporting widespread issues with call reception and networking stability. Apple

Users say the iPhone 3G will switch between 3G networks and EDGE networks even when the device is sitting still. They'll lose reception in the middle of a call while traveling through a 3G-rich environment. Friends with other 3G phones on AT&T's network are not reporting similar problems. And the issues don't appear to be confined to AT&T's network: iPhone 3G users in other countries report similar problems with their new phones.

As you can imagine, this doesn't sit well with many who eagerly bought the iPhone 3G to take advantage of 3G networks, which Apple promises are "twice as fast" as the EDGE networks in its advertising material. "Frankly, if I knew it was going to be like this, I wouldn't have paid the extra $10 a month," said iPhone 3G owner David Howard of Provo, Utah.

Repeated attempts over the past week to get Apple and AT&T to even acknowledge the uproar--if not the issues specifically--proved pointless. Apple didn't even attempt to answer the questions, deferring inquiries to AT&T, which declared that there were absolutely no widespread problems with the iPhone 3G on its network.

"What we're seeing is that the iPhone 3G is performing very well," said Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T. "I'm not denying that people are having problems. But we have to deal with these on a case-by-case basis."

It's always difficult to determine the scope of an issue posted on Internet message boards--whether or not a loud minority is blowing up a relatively minor problem into something more. But this time, lots of different people are crowding the Internet to vent their frustrations and search for answers to the reception issues, and they are finding a lot of sympathizers.

Without detailed testing, it's also difficult to say for sure what is causing the dropped calls or limited access to the network. Most likely, the cause of the problem is not solely an AT&T network issue nor is it an Apple device issue: It's a combination of both.

The network
AT&T's 3G network is not ubiquitous. Currently, AT&T offers 3G service in only 300 major metropolitan areas. It expects to get to 350 metro areas by the end of the year. By contrast, AT&T's 2.5G EDGE network, which is what the first-generation iPhone uses, is deployed throughout AT&T's entire nationwide footprint.

For iPhone 3G users this means they should be able to get 3G coverage in the areas marked by AT&T's coverage map. Many of the problems, however, are being reported in just those places. Some residents of San Francisco, Chicago, and New York--among the first destinations for AT&T's 3G network technology--report spotty 3G availability on their iPhone 3Gs, but excellent EDGE performance.

That suggests either a hand-off issue or a capacity issue. The hand-off between the two networks is supposed to be seamless: 3G calls should automatically switch to EDGE when the 3G signal gets too weak. But the iPhone 3G seems to be hanging when it switches from the 3G network to the EDGE network, dropping service altogether in some cases. Apple technicians who examined Shaw's phone found that 36 percent of his calls had been dropped.

AT&T's 3G coverage map--shown in blue--for the Bay Area, where reception problems have been reported. Click the image for a larger view.

Ideally, a wireless operator would want to minimize the number of handoffs it's forced to do. For AT&T this means having a wider 3G footprint. Just because an area of the country is marked in blue on AT&T's Web site, indicating that it's covered by a 3G signal, apparently doesn't mean that area is receiving a strong signal.

"My belief is that because AT&T's network is not built out to every cell site, people are getting frustrated because they're finding places where the 3G signal isn't available or is weak," said Andrew Seybold, an independent industry analyst.

AT&T's Siegel said the company is working to expand the portion of its 3G network that runs on the 850MHz band, which allows signals to spread farther and penetrate walls more easily than signals on the 1900MHz band, the other main frequency used by AT&T's 3G network. Still, he said, "that doesn't mean you can't get a good experience on 1900MHz."

But network coverage isn't the only possible cause of all these problems. Users of other mobile phones on AT&T's 3G network are not reporting the same kinds of issues, and iPhone 3G users in the U.K. and Australia, among other places, are reporting similar issues.

Some users who have exchanged their iPhone 3Gs for new units report stronger reception with the new phones, while others, like Shaw, weren't so lucky. Doug Clements of Sacramento, who started a mammoth thread on Apple's site regarding the reception issues, reported success after restoring his iPhone 3G and obtaining a new SIM card from AT&T.

That means we have to consider whether there are problems with the iPhone 3G itself. Apple's silence on the issue makes it difficult to determine whether a software or hardware bug is to blame.

The iPhone
Given the number of bugs reported in the iPhone 2.0 software released, and the quick firmware update issued last week, it's possible that a software problem is responsible for some of the issues. If true, that would actually be good news for iPhone 3G owners, since Apple would be able to correct the issue in a subsequent update.

But at this stage, while it's easy to theorize, it's almost impossible to know for sure what might be causing the problems from Apple's side. Hardware issues are certainly a possibility, because a device is really only as good as the parts used to build it. And how those parts are assembled and integrated is crucial to ensuring optimal performance.

The circuit board for the iPhone 3G could have a hardware defect that's potentially reponsible for the reception problems. Bill Detwiler/CNET Networks

One of the most important components of any cell phone is the antenna. The iPhone 3G supports several different cellular radio technologies and antennae in a single device: the 3G UMTS/HSDPA technology that uses three major frequencies (850MHz, 1900MHz, 2100MHz) 2G and 2.5G GSM/EDGE technology that uses four frequencies (850MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, and 1900MHz), as well as other radios for things like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Assisted-GPS.

In short, that's a lot of radio frequency technologies to pack into a little device. Even though lots of modern mobile phones come with similar technologies, it's certainly not easy, says Seybold. In fact, he believes that Apple's decision to use a plastic back on the new iPhone 3G instead of a metal back, as the previous generation, is a good indication that Apple needed a different material to accommodate all the radios.

"These are complicated devices supporting several different radio technologies," he said. "Typically the more you pack into a phone the tougher it is to build a really good one."

Indeed, it's possible that the components themselves could be perfectly fine, but the way in which they've been assembled could cause interference inside the device.

Just as important as how the components of the device are integrated is how well that device communicates to the network. While the iPhone 3G was built to a set of standard specifications, and AT&T has also built its network to support those same specifications, there are still nuances between devices and networks that need to be worked out to make sure that they work well together.

This is the main reason that carriers, such as Verizon Wireless, say they have such strict testing requirements for devices used on their networks.

"Sometimes customers may want to pin a problem on the device," said David McCarley, executive director of service performance and device evaluation for Verizon Wireless. "Or they want to pin it on the operator. But really it doesn't matter how well they work separately. They need to work together."

The fallout
It's fairly safe to say that Apple is not going to look back on July 2008 as one of its finer months. Despite selling more than 1 million iPhone 3Gs since July 11, the company has taken a few hits on the customer service front with its inability to get its MobileMe service running properly for weeks as well as its determined silence regarding the iPhone 3G networking issues.

Monday marks the 30-day anniversary of the iPhone 3G's launch, which is also the deadline to cancel a new AT&T subscription without incurring the early termination fee. Most iPhone 3G owners are happy with the device itself; they just want to use it in the fast lane.

"I think the biggest disappointment was the service of both AT&T and Apple. I expected a lot more from both organizations," Shaw said. "They should admit that there is an issue and that they are working through it."

Please let us know if you are still having problems with the reception of your iPhone 3G, and whether or not your handset was fixed after intervention from Apple, AT&T, or both.