Is It the iPhone? Or the Network?

It's a funny thing. Right after AT&T's CEO admits their network has problems and the iPhone's shitty reception becomes a late-night punchline, AT&T crushes our nationwide 3G test. It makes you wonder, again, is it the network, or the iPhone?

AT&T's network is generally reviled. Users of the iPhone, in particular, loathe it the kind of deep hatred reserved for people who steal from charities or beat up grandmothers. More specifically still, are people in New York and San Francisco, locations where even AT&T Mobility's CEO admits the network is "performing at levels below our standards." AT&T fares the worst in JD Power's call quality ratings overall.

It's no secret that the iPhone isn't merely the embodiment of AT&T's network woes, but it's also, at least in part, the cause. The 3 percent of people responsible for 40 percent of the traffic on AT&T's network de la Vega is so fond of pointing the finger at are most assuredly iPhone users. AT&T notoriously didn't roll out MMS for the iPhone until this fall, not only months behind international carriers, but behind their own schedule, because they needed "to make sure our network is ready to handle what we expect will be a record volume of MMS traffic." And iPhone tethering still isn't offered by AT&T, even though international carriers do, because it "could exponentially increase traffic on the network." Congestion is a very real problem on AT&T's network, even AT&T admits that.

Yet AT&T crushed our 3G tests all over the place, not just in their backyard of Atlanta. The major consideration is that we didn't use phones to test, but 3G sticks, and we only tested data. While coverage is inherently a part of the test—if we hadn't have gotten a signal in the places we tested, or the signal was shitty, it would've affected their placement in the test, obviously (just look at T-Mobile's results in some spots)—we were mainly testing for speed. The iPhone's problem is that it drops calls, frequently, or simply doesn't connect. It has crappy reception. Other phones we've used on AT&T fare noticeably better. So it's easy, and obvious, to blame the iPhone, and its chipset as some have. (We explain why cell reception isn't perfect across the board here.)

But why isn't there an international outcry about the iPhone having garbage reception, then? It's possible, I suppose, that those networks have so much better coverage, even if the iPhone does have an inferior chipset with poor reception, it doesn't matter. It's just wrapped up in a blanket of coverage so comfy it still works fine. (And we have heard, though can't confirm, that the iPhone 3G at least used an inferior, cheaper Infineon chipset because AT&T wouldn't certify the one Apple actually wanted to use.)

So we have two contradictory piece of information. The iPhone does better internationally, and AT&T does better with other devices. So is it the network, or the phone? Probably a little of both. Help us out, engineers.