AT&T's Mobile Customers Broadly Frustrated

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Pretty much every iPhone owner I know complains that AT&T is the bane of their existence. Up to now, the service provider has blamed their bandwidth problem on the fact that iPhone users are data hogs. Their claim is that iPhone owners bring the network problems on themselves, because they use the devices too much. But news from Consumer Reports implies that the AT&T's bandwidth problem might be broader than many thought.

All Things Digital provides information about the new survey from Consumer Reports. It says that, as expected, major markets like New York and San Francisco report AT&T as having the worst network and Verizon as having the best. That makes sense, because everyone took for granted that those regions have lots of heavy iPhone users to blame for their network congestion.

But it turns out that AT&T's network scores the lowest even in less major markets where iPhones usage was thought to be lighter:

But to find that the carrier placed last in 17 other cities as well suggests that AT&T's shortcomings are more widespread than the carrier would have us believe and not simply the product of a high concentration of iPhones in the country's larger cities.

And:

With low marks for several key indicators of customer satisfaction-including service availability, circuit capacity, dropped-call frequency and voice service-across 73 percent of the markets Consumer Reports surveyed, it's pretty clear that AT&T has become overextended by the popularity of the iPhone. Which is bad news for the carrier and, of course, for iPhone owners as well.

Meanwhile, Consumer Reports also finds that iPhone users are at the most satisfied smartphone owners. If you want to enjoy the iPhone, then you have to suffer through using the worst network. At least for now.

It's hard to tell whether this news will bother Apple. They haven't given much indication that they plan to change course regarding AT&T's iPhone exclusivity in the U.S. And I guess, on some level, they don't need to. I don't know many iPhone users moving to other smartphones just because AT&T annoys them. For most, their love of the device is worth enduring their hatred of their network.

But from a customer service standpoint, this should bother Apple. A company that prides itself on making consumers happy should not be forcing them to use an inferior service provider. And as soon as other smartphones exhibit similar functionality to the iPhone, sales growth could begin to suffer.

I'll be interested to see if those new smartphones begin to put a strain on other providers' networks. If all devices converge in terms of functionality, then their usage should also be similar. When that happens we'll really know if one network is far superior to another.

In the meantime, AT&T should treat their network problems as an early lesson and work to improve it. Imagine a world a few years away where Verizon's network becomes strained from Droid users, while AT&T expanded their network to better address iPhone usage. That could change the service provider rankings remarkably.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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