Can You Hear Me Now?

by Colin Berkshire

For two years I struggled with AT&T on my iPhone. So bad was the service that my voice mail message stated:

“Thanks for calling. If this is the first time you reached this message, please hang up and call me back. Often, AT&T doesn’t even ring my phone the first time it is called. If this is the second time you received this recording, then please leave me a message and I’ll call you back. But note that it can be an hour or more before AT&T notifies me that I have a Voice Mail message.”

I listened to AT&T talk about how only 3% of calls on their network are dropped. I don’t know how they did that measurement, but my personal estimate was a third or more of my calls were dropped. Even now, when the other party drops a call I usually ask “You are on AT&T, aren’t you?” Yep.

What are we, a third world country?

Last fall I switched to a Verizon iPhone. I have never had a dropped call on Verizon. My experiences are not unique.

This got me to thinking: Why is AT&T’s network so bad?

My first theory was that AT&T uses GSM technology while Verizon uses CDMA. Yes, the stats generally support that CDMA drops fewer calls.

But GSM is the most widely used global standard. If the problem is GSM then why isn’t the rest of the world having AT&T sucky service? I started to investigate…

I have a little app on a second (Jailbroken) iPhone that plots the coordinates of cell towers on Google Maps. I could see on a map not only the tower I was connected to, but also all of the backup towers. Fascinating.

I soon learned where the towers were that served my home, office, and places that I frequented. As I drove down the interstates I could see upcoming towers. It was insightful observing the regular spacing of towers and their placements. The important fact I came away with was that AT&T usually spaced their towers about 1~3 miles apart along the interstates and about 3~7 miles apart in non-interstate areas.

I travel extensively to other countries, and so I started noticing how towers were spaced in those other countries. The revelation hit me like a lightning bolt. You just can’t politic your way out of facts when they are stark naked and compelling.

In a typical city in China my iPhone would see 8 or more towers within a few blocks of my location. There were so many towers on the map that I could no longer see the roads. Towers on top of towers. I could stand almost anywhere and literally see a dozen towers. Where China had 30 towers closeby, AT&T would have three towers within range, and the distance being 1~7 miles away. Throughout China the towers would typically be a couple of blocks away and never even 1 kilometer, and there would be many close by. Wow.

Well, it is easy to cast China as some sort of tower-fanatic crazy country. China is big, and they have a lot of population. So maybe China is just different.

The story is that you can go to Third world countries like Thailand, or Vietnam, or even impoverished Cambodia and always be surrounded by towers. Even in rural Vietnam in villages that had no electricity there would be 3G service and five bars of coverage. By the way, the download speeds in a third world country like Cambodia are faster than what I experienced on the AT&T network.

Eventually, my disbelief that AT&T’s coverage could be that dramatically different (worse) than third world countries became a bit of a fascination of mine. I started asking officials about how towers are installed in other countries. Again, I was surprised…

AT&T installs massive, standardized, expensive monopole towers as a general rule. These cost $50,000 or even $250,000 to build. They are certainly industrial grade (or military grade) installations.

In the rest of the world they use a different philosophy: They install a blend of heavy towers, but they prefer to deploy hundreds of mid-power and extremely inexpensive towers. I was talking with the owner of a business in Thailand and it came up that they get free Internet from the ell hone company.  In the store window was a small plastic pack. It was a cell phone tower that was about the size of a briefcase. It plugged into a wall outlet and had an Internet connection on the back. The cell phone company then runs an Internet connection to the store which is how the tower transmits voice back to the cell company. The store gets to use the surplus bandwidth when the connections don’t need it. Is that brilliant or what?

This trivially simple solution allows cell companies to blanket a city with coverage. They pay a negligible amount of rent for the tower (just sharing the Internet connection) and they install the towers in under an hour. This allows them to have them everywhere.

I am certain AT&T has their corporate-mentality justifications as to why they cannot be innovative and why it is OK for them to cut off their customer’s calls because the towers they have are spaced too far apart. But it is nothing but rationalization.

You see, I have never, ever experienced a dropped call while in Asia. Even in the most backwards third world country the cell phone coverage is more reliable than what AT&T offers. That is not just a one-time experience, but is actual experience from years of going back and forth.

By the way, getting phone service in most Asian countries is as simple as going to a 7-11 and buying a SIM card. If you buy the $12 card in Hong Kong it includes six months of service, 240 minutes of airtime, and your local calling area is 31 countries. Yes, the United States is a local phone call when calling on your China Mobile IDDD SIM card. But then, over two billion people can be called for only airtime charges, which average 4-cents a minute.

Hello, AT&T? Hello?