AT&T: A brief rant

I love my iPhone.

I really do.

However, I don’t love AT&T so much, and unfortunately the iPhone is yoked to AT&T exclusively for the foreseeable future.

I used to think Sprint was bad, and indeed it was and is in many markets. During my frequent trips to Chicago I found that the service was at times almost worthless, with dropped calls, crappy signal areas, and dead zones aplenty. However, I had to admit that it got better over the years to the point where I rarely had a problem making a call. Eventually it had nationwide plans at reasonable prices with promiscuous roaming plans that guaranteed I could make calls almost everywhere without getting hit by roaming charges, while coverage improved to the point where roaming was only rarely required.

Since switching to AT&T, which, as is the case with many iPhone users, I did only because I wanted the iPhone, not because I made a conscious choice to switch to AT&T, I’ve hit dead spots all over the place. You know that whole AT&T ad campaign about “more bars in more places”? It’s a big, steaming load of bull. However, despite the annoyances, service was generally tolerable, and having the iPhone made up for the somewhat more frequent annoyances than I had with Sprint.

That is, until I went to the AACR meeting in San Diego.

Let’s just put it this way. AT&T has virtually no signal in the San Diego Airport. Let me repeat that one more time: AT&T has virtually no signal in the frikkin’ San Diego Airport. Coming home, I had to wander all over Terminal 2 until I found one spot where the phone could hold a signal just long enough for me to call my wife and tell her that my flight looked as though it was going to leave on time, a call that only went through after three tries. The rest of the time, I could find no signal at all.

Think about it. If you run a mobile phone carrier, where is the one place that you absolutely, positively want to guarantee that there is a good signal? Where is the one place where your customers will absolutely demand good service and will raise hell if there is no signal?

That’s right, airports and the vicinity around them.

Around the downtown and convention center, service was tolerable, but I sure had a lot of dropped calls. I suppose I could conclude that AT&T just plain sucks in San Diego (at least in the downtown area and the Gaslamp Quarter).

AT&T users, is this what I get to look forward to now every time I travel? The only other place I’ve traveled since I got the phone was Chicago, and service there was OK; so from my limited sample thus far AT&T is only 1 for 2.


  1. #1 John S. Wilkins
    April 18, 2008

    What need has a lucite box with lights for an iPhone?

    Also, come to Australia when they release the iPhone here and buy a handset. They will not be locked to service providers due to our trade practices law.

  2. #2 Niobe
    April 18, 2008

    Get yourself some consumerist love, Orac. I’m pretty sure AT&T is a contender in their worst American company contest.

  3. #3 Coin
    April 18, 2008

    Soon a day will come that the only things worth using will be illegally modified in some way

  4. #4 angrynight
    April 18, 2008

    I am of the firm belief that AT&T sucks some serious ass. Though in my experience it’s their customer service when it comes to internet that’s lacking. Of course, it’s either them or Comcast. What a wonderful choice-filled world we have with a duopoly.

  5. #5 Mattie
    April 18, 2008

    I hear about this all the time and I don’t deny people probably have their issues with AT&T, but I’ve actually NEVER experienced anything like it. I travel quite a lot and have only found dead spots in places I’d expect to have a dead spot (like the middle of the desert in Arizona…) I’ve rarely had dropped calls, too. I’m sure I’m a statistical anomaly. I’ve been with Cingular and now AT&T for 5 or 6 years now.

  6. #6 Barn Owl
    April 18, 2008

    Oh noes! How did we ever survive as a species, before we had the technology to constantly and instantaneously update others on our whereabouts, ETA for dozens of locations throughout the day, menstrual cycle irregularities, UTI treatments, encounters with idiot drivers, and choices of cereal or ice cream novelties at the grocery store?

  7. #7 wolfwalker
    April 18, 2008

    I hate cellphones.

    No, that’s not quite right. I like the idea of cellphones, as an emergency means of communication in important situations. And there’s an element of inner-geek that enjoys having the next best thing to a Classic Star Trek communicator in my pocket, flip-top and everything.

    What I hate is what cellphone companies have done with cellphones. They’ve loaded them down with features no one needs, while doing a miserable job of making them be what they were originally supposed to be — ie, a reliable mobile telephone.

    (I also hate what a lot of cellphone users have done with their cellphones — always on, always prone to interruption, always “My cellphone rang, I must answer!” like one of Pavlov’s hounds. And those inane, insipid, silly, foolish custom ringtones! Get a life, people! It’s a tool, not a tyrant.)

    Orac wrote: “You know that whole AT&T ad campaign about “more bars in more places”? It’s a big, steaming load of bull.’

    Indeed. Have you ever read the fine print on those ads? Near the end of each one, a line of tiny print flashes on the screen that says the ‘more bars’ line means ‘more bars as compared to the old AT&T Wireless network before it merged with Cingular.’

  8. #8 John Giotta
    April 18, 2008

    I’m surprised about all the complains I see about AT&T (ex Cingular) I’ve been a customer for years and I’ve never had any problems with them.

    I simply complain about the cost; “$59” plan some how inflates to “$115” every month and I don’t even have a data plan.

  9. #9 Todd
    April 18, 2008

    How is AT&T going to monitor our phone calls if we can’t get signals in airports? What if there are militant allopathic terrorists gathering in San Diego, plotting to put toxins in our water? I feel so vulnerable.

  10. #10 jay
    April 18, 2008

    hmmmm I wonder if the iphone is part of the issue. While I have no love for ATT, I do have a company issued ATT Blackberry and have never had a connection problem… I’ll have to ask some of our salesmen about San Diego.

  11. #11 jay
    April 18, 2008

    “What I hate is what cellphone companies have done with cellphones. They’ve loaded them down with features no one needs, while doing a miserable job of making them be what they were originally supposed to be — ie, a reliable mobile telephone”

    Actually mine is far more important for email than as a phone.

  12. #12 DrugMonkey
    April 18, 2008

    Weird. When I was at the SD convention center for Experimental Biology 2008, the EB2008 wifi sucked and the iPhone via cell network kept me limping along.

  13. #13 Joe Shelby
    April 18, 2008

    Atlanta was an area that Sprint sucked in during the early 2000s, especially by the airport and up in Marietta. Today, I have no problems there at all.

    The iPhone never really called out to me, but then again, I stopped being a gadget fiend years ago after a habit of either losing them, dropping them, or having them just break down EXACTLY 1 day after the warranty expired.

  14. #14 Nomen Nescio
    April 18, 2008

    i have a cheapskate pay-as-you-go phone from Virgin Mobile. it actually works fairly well for my, admittedly very limited, uses of it. other than everything on or around it being deliberately pitched at an age group twenty years my junior, i have no real complaints about it.

    Virgin Mobile uses Sprint’s network, as far as i can tell mostly because that’s the one that allows them to be the most lock-in fascistic.

    Sprint’s webpages insist they have no coverage anywhere near where i live…

  15. #15 riptide
    April 18, 2008

    Try making a Sprint call from Boston/Logan. Its basically impossible until after you get outside.

  16. #16 andrea
    April 18, 2008

    I have to give my tutees my mobile number and ask them to TEXT me because the voice-call reception is so crappy in my college room. Sometimes even the texting reception drops out. Sprint sucketh, but the other options are not appreciably better. It sure is annoying to have to go up two floors or outside to the center of plaza to return a voice call (to a number that is not in my directly or otherwise not displayed, which eliminates the land-line option).


  17. #17 MightyLambchop
    April 18, 2008

    The carriers I’ve used have all had issues. Sprint has been the most reliable for me and my husband. We both travel a lot and most airports are the worst places to get a signal.

    The best for us has been San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Atlanta. The worst has been Madison, WI hands down.
    The calls were dropped or completely garbled. Frustrating!

  18. #18 Nemo
    April 18, 2008

    I think you can still unlock the iPhone and use it with T-Mobile (the only other widespread GSM provider in the U.S., AFAIK). I don’t know if it’s any better. Apple takes a dim view of it of course.

  19. #19 PalMD
    April 18, 2008

    In chicago, I found ATT was the only company that properly covered my area, but here only verizon gives me the coverage I need. Also, their customer service has been great lately, and my hospital gets a big discount. But no friggin iPhone, and that’s a bummer.

  20. #20 Jason I.
    April 18, 2008

    I’ve been with Cingular / AT&T for years now. For the most part, I didn’t have any problems until I moved into an apartment. My reception is ridiculously sporadic in and around my apartment, yet AT&T shows full coverage of the area on their maps, and I’ve been told numerous times that there are close towers. I got the iPhone (at a sizable discount, after over 250 dropped calls in a month and a half), and I really do like it. One thing that irritates me to no end is the visual voicemail. It’s great when it works, but there are times when I have to wait 10 minutes for the phone to finally access a 15 second voicemail. I also agree about AT&T customer service. I don’t think there’s a more useless group of people that have the word “service” as part of their job.

  21. #21 Inquisitive Raven
    April 19, 2008

    Wolfwalker: Actually, the custom ringtones do serve a useful function. They let you identify that it’s your phone that’s ringing and not the one next to you. Gotta agree about the other bells and whistles though.

  22. #22 Nomen Nescio
    April 19, 2008

    custom ringtones can often also let you know who’s calling. my spouse’s caller ID sets off Ravel’s Bolero, callers who provide no caller ID get Vivaldi, and everybody else get me Pachelbel’s Canon. that knowledge can be useful in deciding what to do with the call before i even pull the phone out.

    (oddly, i’m the only one i know who uses classical music for ringtones. you’d think that’d be quite common, but it doesn’t seem to be around me.)

  23. #23 Phil
    April 19, 2008

    Plus ATT will give your information to any government agency without due process or a warrant. Just for fun.

  24. #24 inkadu
    April 20, 2008

    Verizon is pushing some idiotic music downloading / storage thing on their phones. All I’ve noticed is that it drives up the price of even their cheapest phones, because they want to be sure they can make money off their music service on any of their phones.

    Incidentally, my new cell phone does not let me turn off the ringer. I hit the button, and it turns off the ringer for that ring cycle, but it will ring again in a few seconds. I can’t turn the volume on the ringer down without opening the phone and answering the call. So instead now I just flip the phone open and close it, hanging up on the person. Hanging up on people. This is progress?

    Maybe if the engineers had spent less time figuring out how to make my phone a camera/videophone/mp3 player, i could turn the fucking ringer off.

  25. #25 George
    April 20, 2008

    I agree, AT&T service is poor. I have the same complaints you have. There is just not more to say. Switching is the only solution.

  26. #26 Godless Geek
    April 22, 2008

    I live in Montgomery, AL and travel to all time zone in the continental US. I’ve had AT&T/Cingular/BellSouth Mobility for 7 years and the iPhone for 7 months and never had problems with either, other than the very occasional echo when calling a landline, which can be fixed by just calling back.

    The iPhone itself is a masterpiece. An incomplete masterpiece to be sure, but infinitely and easily hackable; a tinkerers dream.

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