AT&T, iPhone and the Edge of Weird
Last week, The New York Times reported that, due primarily to iPhone
usage that AT&T 3G bandwidth gets so flooded that during "peak" hours,
it is virtually impossible to get a signal in New York, San Francisco
and a number of other major cities. I have not experienced any such
trouble in Cambridge but I haven't crossed the river into Boston
during any of those hours either.
Although dropped and virtually non-existent signals present a high
degree of problematic behavior for the iPhone user, we should take a
look at the cause. No other technology product that I can remember
has held a buzz for as long and as loud as the iPhone. In the first
few days the lines spanning blocks in major cities and suburban malls
alike would make one think that a new Beanie Baby had hit the
streets. In the summer of 2009, the iPhone 3G S became the king of
The iPhone, however, goes well beyond cool rims for the SUV, a
Rolex, and most other truly ornamental but cool objects that fashion
followers buy. AT&T wouldn't have their signal slammed if the iPhone
was just another high tech gadget that people could show their friends
and enjoy the envy.
Smart phones have been around for quite some time. Most fell into one
of two camps: Windows Mobile or Symbian, two competing and
incompatible operating systems for handheld devices. Then came Apple
with the iPhone and, as if by magic, the whole marketplace got tossed
on its ass.
Why didn't perfectly good AT&T Windows phones like the Blackjack 2
cause the usage meters to ring tilt? Why didn't the Nokia N82, the
most powerful and memory laden handset on the market shut down the
grid? The answer is: people bought them but, due to their very
clunky, desktop simulator interfaces, people hardly used any of the
features or added more applications onto these devices. Some people
used the music player features but little else in the now not-so-smart
Apple, long known for its excellent designs actually made a phone with
an interface that one, sighted or blind alike, not just can use but
that they actually do use. With so much a tap, flip or rotator away,
a user is watching a YouTube video, downloading a new album, sending
a text message, checking the weather for their current location and a
plethora of other web based tasks, that add up to a whole lot more
bandwidth than one would use on the clunky Windows or Symbian based
So, AT&T is crippled by the major advances in smart phone user
interface on the Apple iPhone. I can attest to the fact that I use my
iPhone at least ten times as much as I did my other handsets as the
things I want to do are right in my face and, for the majority of
programs I've encountered, are also accessible.
The iPhone 3G S marks a transformative moment in the world of mobile
devices in general and telecommunications in particular. Apple rules
Some other AT&T and maybe Apple issues that annoy me: If I try to buy
and download an application of more than 10 megabytes, I get a
dialogue telling me to switch to WiFi. I'm paying for unlimited data
service from AT&T and that's what I want. Of course, my WiFi network
is much faster but its the principle we're talking about here.
The New York Times article included a number of other features that
AT&T is delaying lest they make the bandwidth worse. I don't care
about most of them but I was looking forward to using tethering while
we drove back south to Florida at the end of the month.
Thus, we still don't have all of the features and the awesome Apple
design is already killing the AT&T capacity. This, in a bizarre way,
is really cool just to observe such a tectonic shift in such a huge
Back during the hateful George W. Bush administration, At&T admitted
that it spied on American citizens for the government. President
Obama has not ruled out spying on Americans so, the following bit of
very weirdness gave me pause the other day:
Because of the work I do, I need to be in contact with people around
the world. Sometimes Skype isn't good enough so I went to the AT&T
customer page and checked that I wanted them to turn on International
dialing. The web site reported that I had to call a number so I did.
The phone was answered by some sort of phone-bot and I sat on hold for
about a half hour - keep in mind that all I want to do is sign up so I
can pay AT&T more money every time I dial a number in Asia.
Finally, a cranky woman came on the line and started interrogating
me. This was far more than the last four digits of my social security
number or mother's maiden name; I was asked questions like, "Where
were you living when your Social Security card was issued?" "Have you
ever held a job in Biloxi, Austin or Durango, Colorado?" "How often
did you leave the United States in 2009?" "Have you ever lived in
Pennsylvania?" And they continued with personal questions that, as
far as I can see it, they should not know the answers.
I had my radical days when I was young. I sang for an anarcho-punk
band, attended demonstrations, got arrested more times than I'd like
to recall but I have never been a spy. Although Margaret Atwood wrote
an excellent novel called, "The Blind Assassin," and I personally know
blinks at CIA and NSA, I'm really not good at subterfuge nor secrecy,
my life is a pretty open book and, if you read through the past few
years of blog entries, you'll see that I admit to almost everything
short of the Kennedy cover-up, no grassy knolls in my history, I
Why then is AT&T giving me the third degree just so I can call my
charter accountant in New Delhi? It simply boggles the mind.
Of course, my mind is boggled by AT&T on my very kick-ass iPhone which
does kind of soften the blows.