AT&T Year-End Report Card: CS

AT&T, the supermassive telecom and largest wireless carrier in the US, is affectionately known by Giz readers as the Death Star. Why? Its reach is Empire-worthy and well, just look at that damn logo. 2007 was an appropriately big year that started off with a double-barrelled blast: AT&T snagged exclusive rights to the iPhone in the States and killed off the Cingular brand. But was it strong with the Force for the rest of the year?

The iPhone is undoubtedly the hottest story in tech this year, whether you wanna lick it, spit on it or do something downright unseemly to it. And AT&T locked up the exclusive rights, scoring a huge, huge win. Of course, it rearranged AT&T into more like an ATM for Apple, but by and by, it's getting what it paid is paying for, despite pesky, persistent little hackers. A

But! The major problem everyone has with the iPhone (before we ditch the subject, honest) is actually AT&T. I mean, Apple even tried to take it to Verizon first. Burn, no? AT&T has got a crummy-ass network, and EDGE is only part of the problem, even after "Operation Fine Edge." Twue, its 3G network's a little better than before, but still way behind Verizon's—not that it matters for iDrones anyway. 'Til next year. D+

In addition to the iPhone, the rest of its hardware is pretty decent too, and even if you aren't bonkers over its lineup, it still beats Verizon on two fronts. One, there is no standardized Lifesaver-red interface gunking your phone up. Two, AT&T is a GSM carrier, so if you don't like what it's got, just bring your own sleeker wares from Europe or Asia, pop in an AT&T SIM card and you're good to go, as long as your wallet can take the beating an unlocked phone will probably give it. (OMG, open access! Wait a second...) B

Wireless is always the most popular, but let's not forget that AT&T has a tight grip on landline data and voice, too. Take its fiber service, for instance, part of the U-Verse IP service. Like Verizon, AT&T is getting it out there as fast it can despite some kinks, but Verizon is smoking it speed-wise, offering 20Mbps down and upstream on its entire FiOS network, plus a killer 50Mbps down/20 up in some places. AT&T's U-verse's top package is a barely competitive-with-cable 6Mbps down. "Elite" package, my ass—worse, that's only getting boosted to 10Mbps in Q1 2008. The problem is that AT&T has been mostly pushing a cheaper "fiber to the neighborhood," copper-to-your-door approach, rather than a "fiber to the premises" one, so Verizon has bandwidth to spare that AT&T just don't, though it's starting to see the fat-pipes light with more FTTP deployment. But, kudos on the recently juiced Britney-sized backbone network. C

Hey, guess what? Seriously shady government collusion earns you no points in our book, even if the FCC is willing to look the other way, and Congress (almost) let you totally slide. Passing Uncle Sam intensely personal conversations about my toenail-clipping habits is so rude, especially without a warrant. While we're on the subject, a network-wide content filter would be a dick move, too. Fail

Sorry AT&T, we know we're being a little harsh but it's only because we want you to be better. And you have been better to us, at least to our faces. After that whole thin-skin Terms of Service fiasco, you took the magic lawyer eraser pen and made it less evil. And now you're pro-rating early termination fees like a nice guy. Like a champ, you're offering a data-only plan for the deaf. Though if you didn't step up on that one, everyone would've called you an asshole for hating the deaf. You even found time to get all BFF with us, and your candor is appreciated. B+

Odds and ends: AT&T made a big 700MHz move that it'll likely plug the holes in with the 700MHz spectrum auction for nationwide coverage. Even though it followed Google and Verizon into the auction, it did not follow them into the Open Handset Alliance, the only major carrier to abstain completely. Why not join up? Even Verizon did, and the word "open" used to make Verizon cower under a desk. It's like a country club, only with a lot more money. B-

AT&T's dizzying ups and breathtaking lows actually average out to a pretty, well, average score. Even the peak of its year, the iPhone, wasn't totally fig pudding, though by no means did all of its mishaps fall on AT&T's head. (Just a lot.) Some of the lows were pretty low, like Anakin screaming "NooOOOooOo" at the end of Revenge of the Sith. But with a 3G iPhone, faster and larger wireless and fiber networks (minus gov't backdoors and copyright dragnets), the door is very much open for AT&T to Strike Back next year.

Final Grade: C