Lessons in AT&T Wireless Land...

I’ll spare you the details about how I got here, but where I am (I think) is remarkable.  Today marked when AT&T has (finally) shown me that they can show compassion towards “those little people” we all know as AT&T Wireless customers.

Amid the raging debate about Apple’s iPhone 4 “Antenna-gate”, I have stood true to my belief that the most important cellular issue at hand is not hardware... it’s the network.  I became an AT&T customer (from Verizon) when I bought an iPhone 3G phone two years ago.  Ever since then, I have been passively collecting data about the coverage area throughout greater Miami and other places where I’ve traveled.  And as far as I’m concerned, AT&T can color, market and spin its 3G coverage map however it likes, it just isn’t true to real life.

This morning, after two years of near-continuous and escalating complaining to AT&T Corporate about my bad 3G coverage, two white AT&T vehicles rolled up to my house in suburban Miami.  Out popped two cellular field engineers who proceeded to spent more than 150 minutes with me testing, discussing and teaching me about what they do and possible ways to improve my near-zero cellular coverage at home.

The first thing of note is that they freely admitted they had coverage issues in suburban Miami.  In fact, they said coverage problems existed in many areas across the U.S. where they have limited ability to obtain proper sites for cellular towers.  From a sophisticated mapping application on their laptop, they openly showed me the locations of their cell towers and signal footprints in my area.  Where there were dense populations, major road and businesses along them, the towers were densely packed together forming a rich coverage blanket.  The result from my real-world testing?  Excellent service.  As you head towards suburban communities less than a mile from those towers and into the land of trees and grass, there were far fewer towers providing coverage.  The result?  Crappy service.

Makes sense, right? But here is where it gets really interesting.  I learned that each cellular antenna site has three radiating segments which they label Alpha, Beta and Gamma.  In a 360 degree circle, each of these segments radiate a signal in about a 110 degrees arc.  This leaves three 10 degree “bald spots” around the circle that the antenna engineers must carefully design not to negatively effect populous areas. They do their best to provide the best coverage possible; however, there is no way around the physics. There are always three weaker spots per tower, regardless of how perfectly a site is designed.

Next, I learned that the height of the cellular elements strongly effect the “relative strength” of that particular tower.  According to the engineers, all cellular antennas transmit with the same amount of power, so the only advantage that can be gained (no pun intended) is by obtaining element height and avoiding path obstructions (trees and buildings).  Further, since most cell towers are, for practical and financial reasons, co-opted with multiple carriers, AT&T says there is a bit of luck needed to be the highest antenna on that tower to gain local signal superiority.

Good enough.  Great lesson.  But now back to my issue.  I still have crappy 3G coverage and it’s not like I live in the back woods.  I am less than 2 miles from a primary roadway (where coverage is excellent) and my area is serviced by five cell towers.   Why the dropped calls?  Why the numerous times that my phone never rings when people are calling me?

After walking throughout my house and carefully viewing an iPhone in service mode, the engineers came to the conclusion that I had two issues.  One, surprisingly low signal strength (which they said needed further analysis) and two, “bounce”.  According to them, the “bouncing” was the biggest culprit.  Bouncing occurs when there are multiple towers within range of the handset and none of them is dominant.  Therefore, the handset is constantly searching and “bouncing” between cell towers.  Although “bouncing” between towers is designed into the cellular protocol, it is typically the case that a handset only hop from one tower to the next as you drive down the road, switching occasionally to the strongest tower.  When five towers are all being interpreted as the same strength and the phone is constantly “bouncing” around, bad things happen. Thus, my experience with alarming high dropped and missed calls.

So, what is the solution for the millions of suburban AT&T customers who are in areas similar to mine?  The field engineers sat me back down at the laptop map to show me more about their tower placement and tuning methods.  Each and every day, they said, AT&T technicians are trying to tune cellular antennas for optimal coverage.  As new buildings go up, they may obstruct previously great antenna signal.  As populations move from an old apartment complex to a new one just down the block, it’s time to re-tune the antennas to better accommodate the more populated building.  This is a constant cat-and-mouse game.  Further (and I know this from my prior life as a TV microwave truck operator), RF signals are tricky things.  You can never tell what physics are at play until you try them in real life.  So, things that look good on paper (or computer screen) rarely work that way in the field.

The engineers went on to show me the many proposed new tower locations they have lobbied for in my neighborhood. They believe adding just one tower would solve my particular issue. However, there lies the next hurdle.  While engineers can easily suggest decent places for new towers to reside, they are almost always met with severe resistance.  The FCC, local governments, community groups and residents tend to hate towers marring their landscapes and causing radio interference.  Even when facing the reality that an unsightly tower would often greatly benefit the under-served cellular phone users in their own community, form almost always trumps function.  Even though wireless carriers often pay handsomely for the privilege of placing towers on private real estate, it’s usually a no go in most NIMBY (not in my backyard) suburbs.

Now, with the understanding that AT&T really does try to (a) place towers in accordance to population numbers, (b) add towers when and where appropriate, (c) locate towers evenly, and (d) tune each antenna to minimize weak spots and “bouncing”, what’s next to try to solve reception issues?

Well, they are brand new to market and they are called Microcells (a small box that looks a lot like a Wi-Fi router that you put inside your home or office to improve 3G coverage).  And, at least for me, they are (make that were) misunderstood products.

You can buy these devices in most AT&T stores or, if you are deemed lucky enough (and spend enough money with AT&T), they may give you one for free. With me, AT&T knew they had a coverage issue.  So, as soon as Microcells were approved for public use a few weeks ago, they gave me one.  My understanding was that these devices were mini-towers that boosted the signal from surrounding towers so that your phone would always have a strong signal.  This turns out to be totally wrong.

Microcells are, indeed, miniature cell towers; however, they use your broadband connection to convert all the voice information into VOIP (voice over IP) packets.  This means that your cellular phone calls are captured by the Microcell over a 3G channel and converted into information not unlike a Skype call, making their way to the other party via the Internet.  Microcell technology was meticulously designed not to be a radio repeater.  Here’s why...

There are, in fact, cellular amplifiers/repeaters on the market today.  The most popular of which is the Wi-Ex zBoost. They work (almost) as advertised.  It receives a weak signal from a nearby 3G tower and then amplifies it to any cell phone within range.  The result is often better localized cell phone coverage, but there are also many side effects.

Cellular signal boosters can confuse phones because they don’t hand-off signals elegantly.  So, as you enter and exit a boosted cell zone, you can get dropped calls and other anomalies.  Further, these devices are often improperly installed and create an RF looping issue that can wreak havoc...including providing your house with good coverage, but knocking out service for your neighbors.  Not to mention, and the engineers couldn’t stress this enough, running a cellular signal booster is illegal!  When in operation, you are running a transmitter on a frequency licensed for private use by the carrier.  Thus, you can be heavily fined and sanctioned. They mentioned that AT&T had already knocked on a few nearby doors and were pursuing shut-down orders in court for households running cellular signal boosters.

Back to Microcells.  These devices do hand off signal properly when you start a call on a Microcell and then leave its range to a stronger cellular tower.  They are designed to “play nice” with the big boy cell towers. Not only does the signal to the mobile phone work properly, there is a lot of back office communication going on through your broadband connection to make the hand-off route seamlessly.

Next, Microcells are designed to work exclusively for handsets that are registered to work with that “mini cell tower”. They also operate on a special portion of the spectrum that does not interfere with the normal cell towers.  This avoids the whole messing up the signal and pissing off the neighbor thing.

So, with all this going for it, why must I report that with real-world testing the Microcell doesn’t work in my house?  Well, like all things in life, putting a Band-aid on a problem doesn’t solve the problem, it just masks it.  Microcells are amazing technology, but any new cog in the engine can have problems of its own.  In my case, the Microcell often makes the other person’s voice in a call either sound like they are talking through fan blades or like a droid on a bad acid trip.  Either way, it ends the call prematurely because although the signal is strong, the conversation is unintelligible.

I am told by the engineers that in some cases poor broadband or LAN routing equipment can be the cause of these issues.  I have my doubts.  But that’s their excuse. I politely reminded them that I have AT&T DSL @ 6Mbps and Cisco routing equipment.

So, now we climb to 10,000 feet to take a perspective view of my AT&T Wireless issues...

Sure, it took me two years of complaining to get this amount of attention, but at least AT&T finally responded.  They tried everything they could think of to try to resolve my issues.  They also took the time to explain things to me, like I was an intelligent adult.  In turn, I felt compelled to share this info with the Internet public because it dispels a lot of rumors out there.  Ultimately, it still didn’t solve my bad AT&T experience, but then again, they are not finished trying...

The following are my strong beliefs after this experience:

1)  Apple’s iPhone 4 Antenna-gate is only partially warranted.  Yes, you can attenuate and degrade the signal if you have skin contact with the exterior antenna; however, this attenuation would have minimal impact if the AT&T network was stronger.  In fact, I’d go as far to say that you will see minimal to no backlash in Europe over the iPhone 4 issue because their networks are deployed in a superior manner.

2)  I believe that AT&T does care to solve the 3G network issues that are clearly present in many areas of the USA.  In a few isolated discussions over the months, they even admitted to me that they are behind the demand curve.  Further, despite my personal experiences, they did independently attempt to fix (and were knowledgeable about) the gaps in coverage that I noted in my complaints.  This shows that their field engineers are researching and actively working on network improvements.

3)  Other carriers are having similar issues with coverage, but iPhone and smartphone users are much more reliant upon their mobile devices and therefore are more vocal about their phone issues.  When so many of these users are with AT&T, it somewhat artificially raises their public voice of complaint above others.

Now for a bit of (well-deserved) AT&T bashing...

1)  It shouldn't take two years of complaining like I did to finally get a response from AT&T.  The first level of tech support is inadequate and simply doesn’t listen to customers like they should. AT&T regularly uses marketing techniques (“You don’t need to see his identification&rdquoWinking where they should use true technical support. Taller signal bars with the iOS 4.0.1 update? Pure marketing mind games.

2)  AT&T should never promise things and not deliver.  I am still waiting for tethering and the insane delay for MMS on the iPhone was inexcusable.  Further, the closed nature of deciding what high bandwidth stuff can run over 3G smacks of profiteering and favoritism.

3)  Don’t get me started on the squashing of the Google Voice app.  I will be forever pissed at both Apple and AT&T for this one.  It is simple anti-competitive behavior on someone’s part and they should both be ashamed of themselves.

4)  While no wireless network will ever be perfect, after a certain percentage of bad, dropped or missed calls, you should automatically get credited on your bill.  In the case of the iPhone, the phone and the network have running logs about poor and non-existent service.  AT&T knows exactly how their network performs without having to ask iPhone users to run an app (more marketing crap). It is only fair to credit customers when, for example, you have trouble using the network during more than 5% of the calls attempted in a given month.  And that credit should NOT be linear.  It should be punitive to AT&T because it forces the user to use a landline instead of the service they are paying a premium for.

5)  I understand AT&T’s want, desire and financial need to cap data plans.  Great.  But if you are counting data just like minutes, your customers deserve to bank those kilobytes just like voice time.  Again, the current policy on data plans is pure profiteering.

6)  The early terminations fees suck, yet economically consumers must allow carriers (including AT&T) to recoup their phone subsidy.  It’s only fair. However, if AT&T can’t provide reliable service over the course of the contract (again with a threshold of problems being reached), the consumer should have a free pass to go elsewhere.  Sometimes AT&T deserves churn!

So, that’s my story with AT&T (so far).  I went into today steaming mad that for two years I haven’t received reliable service.  I came out with a better understanding about the plight of a carrier trying to keep up with the demands of their users.  There’s still miles to go in this story, but I hope this article helps you understand more of what is at play.  Sure, there are still onerous games being played on customers who are locked into long contracts, but AT&T isn’t sitting still either.  My advice is to document and complain when warranted.  It can get you the attention you deserve.