ISSUES: iPhone Wireless Service

In Progress?

COMPANY RATING: ZERO stars (out of five)

For two years now, I have continued a hate/hate relationship with AT&T in order to stay in the iPhone ecosystem.  The iPhone remains an amazing, breakthrough piece of technology that has forever changed the way I do business.  While AT&T remains a monolithic dog who is the boat anchor to all my communications.  It is the ultimate yin and yang of the modern consumer experience.  One of the best hardware products paired in a monopolistic partnership with one of the worst service providers.

I'll start this saga of a story with my most recent dashed hopes.  I came to AT&T from Verizon two years ago in order to get my hands on the iPhone.  During the time since, I experienced bad cell coverage, many dropped calls, failed outgoing calls, missed voicemail alerts and slow 3G data speed.  After reading, researching and doing my own experiments, I figured the problem was a combination of the iPhone's antenna system and the relatively weak AT&T coverage in my metro area.  My hope was that by buying the latest generation iPhone 4, my reception would improve enough to significantly reduce the call drops and this make the AT&T phone part of my phone useful.  By, was I wrong!

Jon Stewart has roasted AT&T on "The Daily Show" multiple times. So, too, has Steven Colbert. Beyond the laughs, they also brought truth to the masses. AT&T 3G simply isn't ready for primetime.

The AT&T-gestapo
I have been complaining about my 3G reception issues to AT&T since the very first day I bought my iPhone 3G.  Having moved over from the much better Verizon network, I was accustomed to decent coverage...something I'd soon learn was not going to be the case with AT&T.  I called tech support almost daily, worked my way up to Tier 2 support, then found my way to the Executive Office Support staff and a gentleman we'll call 'Larry'.  For many months, I got what amounted to a human call log.  I'd call and complain, they'd type the notes into the system, promise me a call back and then there was inaction and silence.

It took me a while, but I started to figure out shortcuts to reaching key people.  Not that they did anything, but at least I didn't have to hear someone tell me to "reboot" my phone, pull my battery (really?!? Ok, you try to do that on an iPhone) or better yet, tell me to sync the phone to my computer because that would resolve the reception issues (yes, I was told that several times).  My favorite repeated excuse for bad service was that "due to recent hurricanes in Florida, we are experiencing problems with towers in your area and repair work is underway."  Mind you that the last hurricane in the area was in 2006, struck hundreds of miles away and I was experiencing bad service in a 50-mile radius (far beyond 'towers in my area')... Eventually, I wore 'Larry' and the rest of the AT&T clan down.  They actually started listening and responding.  Or at least they said they were.  I was told multiple times over two years that they had specifically dispatched engineers to my home area and they had determined that there were no problems with their signal.

I live in the Miami area.  There are no mountains (or hills for that matter).  There are few building-dense areas and even the trees and vegetation are light compared to the Northeast where I received great cell coverage with Verizon.  Regardless, the entire South Florida area is, according to AT&T, "a tricky coverage area where the coverage map may not be accurately represented."  I'm calling B.S.  AT&T simply does not have enough towers, phones lines and bandwidth to support the explosive iPhone user base.  They charge full price for hideously bad service and I will not back down until they correct this.  I know that cellular coverage can never be 100%, but I'm not paying premium prices to have about half of my calls drop.  Neither should you.


I won a victory with AT&T about a year into my complaining.  AT&T applied a large cash credit to my account and promised that work on a new tower in my area would be complete in a few weeks.  Once complete, the tower would solve my issue permanently. They expected me to go away.  And, if the problems subsided, I would have.  Now a full year after that, I am still waiting.  I've dropped calls during million dollar real estate deals.  I've been through hour long periods with plenty of bars but every outbound call failing.

The surrounding area is no better, even where AT&T says they work great. I regularly went to Dolphins home games where I knew I'd never get a byte of data and rarely a full phone conversation complete.  Week after week, I'd complain and they'd fail...even after telling me they'd worked on the stadium and added capacity and cell towers. Their excuse?  There are a lot of people there during games.  Really?!?  What a shocker!  I bet you even can anticipate the exact demand by counting the number of seats in the stadium and perhaps build your network to support it.  Lame AT&T. Lame. Lame. Lame.

As much as you want to tell me that you have engineering-approved coverage in my area, it simply doesn't work.  Which is why, for a while, I was tricked into thinking it might be my iPhone hardware.  Thus, my dream that the new iPhone hardware would be the answer.

After getting tired of AT&T Larry not responding during a particularly bad stretch of (bad) coverage at the beginning of 2010, I turned my attention to Twitter and Facebook to see if AT&T might be embarrassed enough to respond and fix my issues.

When I started making comments via Twitter, I met The AT&T-Gestapo. Make no mistake about it, they are there to quiet the public outcry and provide lip service, not solutions. Here are a few great messages from one of these Internet "helpers"...


Once you connect with one of these AT&T clowns, you also get daily messages about what time they have coffee, hot hot the day is, when they are on vacation and similar non-helpful verbiage spewed into the Twittersphere in an attempt to make you feel like they are a friend and 'responsive'. Hey, here's an idea AT&T... fire these dopes and get people in your real tech support departments to ASSIST customers. ATTMollica chased after my first ever #ATTepicfail tagged Tweet like a dog in heat. As soon as it was time to actually help, she was gone.

The "Broken Antenna" Debate
Since it's such a hot topic, I wanted to touch upon why the iPhone 4 is NOT the reason for 3G coverage issues. Many iPhoners are in the midst of heated debate online blaming Apple for their latest woes.

Sorry iPhone 4 users, antennas are fickle instruments and even magical Apple engineers can't alter physics.  In order for an antenna to work efficiently it must be a specific length to match the broadcast frequency.  With simple mathematics and a tight manufacturing process, it is a sure thing that Apple got this right on their new phone.  Antenna also work best when they are not touching other objects.  Other objects tend to create signal reflections and block the signal from radiating out.  They can also effectively change the length of the antenna causing attenuation, which does "bad things".  Your hand, head, pocket and purse are all objects.  So are the electronics and materials that make up the rest of a cell phone.  So there is no perfect antenna isolation.  Without going into detail, all cell phones have significant challenges to creating efficient antenna systems.  Thirty years of innovation took us from external whip antennas, to nubs, bumps and then various internal antennas.  I believe Apple, using the phone's shell as the antenna, is a master stroke of genius and likely the next advance in the pursuit of the perfect cell antenna.  It puts the antenna outside all the electronics and shell to give the signal its best chance to radiate efficiently.  Talk and argue amongst yourself, but coating or covering the iPhone 4's exterior antenna may help avoid hand interference, but it also creates "object interference" itself.  Bottom line: the iPhone 4 antenna is not worse (and probably better) than any other cell phone's antenna...except that far more nit-picky eyes are scrutinizing it right about now.

Reception, Reception, Reception
The real issue with the iPhone 4's reception is the network.  Make no mistake about it, AT&T over-promised and continues to under-deliver on its 3G network.  And why not?  Most iPhone customers are in love with the iPhone ecosystem.  Not only is the iPhone an elegant piece of hardware and software, it has an amazing array of software.  "There's an app for that" says it all.  It means that the iPhone is a nearly-perfect match for every single user.  No other mass production consumer product even comes close to the "personal fit" of an iPhone.  So, as you would expect, once you are in the ecosystem, you are very unlikely to ever want to get out. Another 1.7 million iPhone 4s sold in three days will tell you that this is a phenomenon.

Despite coverage maps, "more bars in more places" and whatever else AT&T wants to embellish about, it means nothing if you can't place/receive calls or use the data network.  At heart, the iPhone is a communications device.  When it was introduced, Apple and AT&T formed a partnership to "make the iPhone experience the best in the world".  AT&T has failed so miserably in what should be a symbiotic relationship, that many users (including me) regularly contemplate giving up their iPhone just to get a successful phone call. Jon Stewart quipped, "Hey AT&T, how about making my iPhone work as a phone?! I dropped the same call four times riding down the West Side Highway..."

And, although I can never empirically prove this, I honestly believe one of the past iOS3 upgrades goosed the signal bars artificially to make people feel that their iPhones were working better.  I believe this because I had dead zones in my house before I applied the software update and I had the same dead zones after.  But interestingly enough, I went from 0-1 bars to 3-4 bars in an instant.  Calls still dropped, incoming calls were missed...but I did have more bars.  I also placed an upgraded phone next to one that was not upgraded and saw the "mysteriously embellished signal bars" side-by-side.  Now, there is rumor that a new iOS 4.0.1 is about to be released to address the signal bars again.  If it comes, I bet it is another snow job to cover up crappy coverage.

Reception Sucks In The Magic Kingdom Too
You'd think AT&T would do their best to shine at Disney World.  It is a great marketing opportunity.  Keep families together.  Help them communicate.  Win new customers by word of mouth, right?  Wrong!  During a trip last week, most of my outbound calls never went through.  Inbound calls went to voice mail.  Data was nearly useless.  The only thing that worked was texting.  Given the throngs of people at the parks, I gave AT&T a little bit of slack on this.  By the way, Disney is partnered with Verizon.  Hmm... I wonder why?

Then came the fateful night.  While at Disney, my home alarm system called ADT indicating there had been a break-in.  In turn, ADT tried calling my iPhone (at a Disney hotel room), then my wife's iPhone (also in the same hotel room), followed by my brother-in-law's iPhone (still in Miami).  None of their calls ever rang the iPhones and they left a voicemail on my phone.  Next, they called my mother-in-law (who was in the very next hotel room) and guess what... her AT&T 2G cell phone rang and connected immediately!  In turn, she tried calling my iPhone, which again failed to ring and went to voicemail.  Then she banged on the door and told us about the break-in.  After about 25 minutes, the voicemail indicator on my iPhone finally alerted me to the fact that ADT and she had left me messages.


The rest of the night had several failed and dropped calls as I tried to talk to the police department back home.  I finally had to revert to text messages in order to communicate with them. All-in-all, a horrific night of AT&T failures.

Microcell, Shmickocell
The next day was an angry call/email thread to AT&T Executive Office Support staff member 'Larry'.  It was agreed that AT&T would pay to put a Microcell in my home.  All I had to do was go to an AT&T store (they wouldn't send it), buy it (they couldn't waive the charge), set it up and then they would reimburse me for it on a future bill. And no, they would not toss in any of the Microcell monthly plans to help me out. Gee, thanks!

Still, I was encouraged that we were finally going to solve my home reception issues. I had long requested that I be given a Microcell during the beta test period by AT&T to resolve my issues at home. The answer during beta was no.  Thankfully (for them), just a few days ago, the Microcell went on sale in the Miami market which gave them this saving grace option.  You'd think the story would end there...

After buying the Microcell on the morning of June 26 from an AT&T corporate-owned store, I took it home and set it up, which included me going to the AT&T website to register it.  I'll let my email to Larry tell the rest of this story...


So, I once again have been disappointed by AT&T.  As you agreed, with AT&T reimbursing me for the unit, I got the Microcell this morning.  I set it up. I waited on hold TWICE for tech support, once for 27 minutes (and got hung up on) and again for 17 minutes.  I find out that the WHOLE DAMN MICROCELL SERVICE across the country has been out since Friday night (6/25/10) at 8pm with no ETA for repair.  Do you think the store was aware of this when they sold it to me?  Do you think the website at would have any notification of this?  Nope!  Brain dead behavior on both counts.

AT&T has failed yet again and now I am steaming mad.  Please get me in touch with your manager.  This is going to end by this coming Friday and more than likely with you sitting on a whole bunch of used equipment and one household who will permanently leave the AT&T family.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 4 seems not to resolve the dropped call issue at all.  Can you say overloaded, crappy network?  I can...and quite loudly.

This brings us to the near present.  It is now nearly 11:00pm on June 27.  The Microcell service is still down and the tech support staff tell me not to expect it for ANOTHER 48 hours!  I still have crappy 3G coverage, I have spent nearly $700 on new hardware because they kept telling me the network was fine, the Microcell is a complete failure and I feel like the fool.


Except I won't be the fool!  I plan on ending this by Friday just like I said in my email. 

UPDATE: This morning, June 28, the Microcell service started to work. Five bars throughout the house. I made a few calls and it seemed to work. Of course, that was short-lived as well. Although most calls now work, I often can hear them but they can't hear me. My wife also had two CALL FAILED calls when seeing M-Cell right on the display.

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AT&T's Larry has not returned phone calls or emails all day. Shocker! Ball is in your court until Friday AT&T...

If you want to voice your opinion and/or support my cause, please Tweet with #ATT3gFail.  You can also do your part by sending, tweeting and republishing this article to others.

-Hal in Miami