Signs and Wonders: Is AT&T Stepping Up Its Game?

Signs and sources say that AT&T is undergoing a massive effort--both behind the scenes and out in front--to improve the performance of its oft-maligned 3G network.

AT&T has undergone a barrage of criticism for widespread reports of slow speed and poor reliabilty from its 3G network. This, of course, is amplified by the fact that AT&T is sole service provider of Apple's hugely popular iPhone.

AT&T recently released a new iPhone application, called Mark the Spot, that allows subscribers to report areas of poor 3G data coverage or dropped calls. It isn't clear yet what AT&T will do with the data it collects from the app--hopefully it will be sent directly to the network engineering department. Regardless, it's AT&T asking its customers for help in improving its network. A good gesture, if nothing else.

But far more concrete indications exist that AT&T is sinking real resources into improving the performance of its network.

PC World is currently conducting 3G network speed tests in San Francisco, Chicago and New York using industry standard testing software. Early results show that AT&T has bolstered its network considerably in San Francisco and Chicago, producing far better data speeds and connection reliability. When we tested in the same cities last April, AT&T's download speeds were far slower, and its reliability scores lagged well behind Verizon's and Sprint's. Something has happened.

This improvement involves more than just erecting new cell towers. AT&T says it has been tuning its networks to creat better performance. The carrier recently finished a project to utilize the 850 MHz spectrum band in San Francisco. This spectrum band allows wireless signal to move better, including around buildings and through walls.

In Chicago, AT&T is in the process of converting its network to offer higher top speeds--7.2 Mbps--versus the older 3.6 Mbps maxout point. The benefits of that are now showing up in some parts of the city.

And, of course, there's the normal spin and posturing from AT&T. The company's mobile chief Ralph De la Vega told analysts yesterday his company is considering a number of (more regressive) means of managing the capacity and performance of its wireless broadband network. As I reported in October, AT&T believes that a small number of its data users are sucking up all the bandwidth and making performance poor for everyone else.

De la Vega now says AT&T is now considering a tiered pricing structure that could eliminate "unlimited usage" plans and begin charging heavy data users more. AT&T says it also intends to "educate" heavy data users on ways to cut down their usage. (Yeah, that'll work!) Actually, there's already a 5GB limit on data users even for AT&T subscribers with "unlimited" data plans.

Sure, talk is cheap, but I'm encouraged--for the first time in a long while--by some of the things AT&T is doing. They will have to do a lot more as consumer demand for smartphones--and faster and better wireless broadband service--rockets upward in the years to come.

Stay tuned for the full results of our ongoing 3G network testing, coming up soon on PCworld.com.

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