It's conventional wisdom now that iPhone exclusivity is the best and worst thing that ever happened to AT&T. A rocket that sent them into space—and directly into the sun. Will the same thing happen to Verizon?
Wired's Fred Vogelstein has chronicled the iPhone-induced #attfail more completely than anybody. The same phone that delivered AT&T millions upon millions of customers every quarter—sometimes over half of their new customers rode in on the iPhone—also obliterated their network. The original iPhone, a pokey little thing running on EDGE, still managed to eat up 50 percent more data than AT&T thought it would, Vogelstein reported. So AT&T's plunged around $50 billion into their network since launching the iPhone, according to Vogelstein's numbers, in an attempt to feverishly build out capacity. End result? The iPhone is still un-fucking-usable in plenty of places around the country.
It's safe to say that Verizon takes more pride in its network than any other carrier in the country. It's what feeds the ego that led them to tell Apple to shove off when they originally came to Verizon with the iPhone. They have the biggest, best—and now, thanks to LTE, fastest—network in the country, and they know it. They'll tell you all about it, as they did today at the iPhone announcement. What's going to happen when the iPhone leaps onto it? Will it be crushed under the weight of data from millions of iPhones running bajillions of byte-hungry apps and wireless hotspots?
Probably not, says Gartner wireless analyst Phil Redman. Verizon's "had more time to plan than anybody else and knows the repercussions of not preparing enough." Just look at how much some people loathe AT&T. Verizon's already "put in more work than AT&T did at the start of their venture." Not only has Verizon "increased their CDMA capacity over the last 12-18 months" to be ready for the iPhone and other smartphones, says Redman, they've been "more aggressive than others increasing their backhaul capacity." Specifically, they've been more aggressive about running more fiber to their towers than any other carrier. All these points, Verizon hammered on during the iPhone announcement as well.
Backhaul, if you're unfamiliar, is basically the pipes that carry the data from the cell tower to the main network and vice versa. If the backhaul is flooded with too much data, it effectively cripples the towers, and slows your connection to a crawl. Just like when your roommate is running BitTorrent while you're trying to watch an HD movie on Netflix.
All of the carriers have been moving to replace old copper lines with fiber to boost backhaul capacity over the last few years, though none of them like to talk about how much fiber they actually have in place for competitive reasons. So, it's hard to estimate how much capacity they each have.
But if it says anything about how much capacity Verizon's likely to have built into their network to be ready, AT&T initially "built 3-4x more capacity in their network than they thought they needed, and we know what that got them," says Redman. The brutal reality that obliterated AT&T's expectations? Over 5000 percent data growth since the launch of the iPhone. David McCarley, Verizon's executive director of technology, told me a couple months ago that Verizon was "staying well ahead of demand," even though they've seen a "phenomenal growth in data" thanks to "Droid-class devices." We'll see just how far ahead.
All things said, Verizon does look to be better prepared for the iPhone than AT&T was, and iPhone customers will probably have a smoother experience at launch. Which means more than a few disgruntled AT&T customers will abandon ship, especially in New York and San Francisco. Won't fewer iPhones on the network make things better for the AT&T customers that stay behind? "Nah," says Redman. "The truth is, though the iPhone was the first smartphone to impact network capability, it's not the only one." Depending on whose numbers you're looking at, Android phones use just as much, if not more data than iPhone. Not being ready for the iPhone, at this point, is really just not being ready for the future.
Bottom line, if you have a terrible AT&T experience wherever you're at, and want a shot at a more reliable one, Verizon really is going to be your best bet. Just don't plan to use voice and data at the same time, or expect to gloat too much, since Redman thinks there "won't be any measurable difference" in speed between the two, once AT&T's HSPA+ network is up running with more capacity. And there's always a chance Verizon will get crushed, a tiny bit. But in the meantime there's that sweet, sweet relief from dropped calls.