For the last month, people using Apple’s iPhone 3G — including me — have bemoaned its poor 3G connectivity. I had plenty of trouble getting a decent signal with the previous phone, but the new one is far worse, to the point of not being able to use it as a phone at all.
Yesterday Apple released a firmware update with the cryptic and unhelpful description “bug fixes.” There’s always a placebo effect around these updates, as people claim that their phone is faster, the colors brighter, and the sky bluer. Usually they’re dead wrong.
When I installed the update I only noticed two changes: first, my GPS stopped working entirely (it finally came back this morning, mysteriously) and second, the 3G was not improved.
But I’m not entirely sure I agree with those who claim it’s an Apple problem. I wrote about this a little before, theorizing that the problem lies in old thinking from the phone companies. Back when the build out of the cell network was planned, they never fathomed that people might want to use cellular phones in their homes. Back then, phones were either installed in cars permanently or were “portable” as big bags with batteries. The phone company assumed that we’d use our landline phones at home and never envisioned that mobile phones would be small enough to fit in our pockets and would supplant the land line. So, when they built the infrastructure they concentrated on highways.
This seemed plausible to me just from my personal experience trying to use my phone; today I decided to perform an unscientific experiment. I logged my signal strength during my morning commute and discovered that the results jibe exactly with my hypothesis:
- One block from my house, on a residential street one block away from I-800 in downtown San Jose: No Service
- At the entrance ramp to I-800 in downtown San Jose: 5 bars, NO data connection. (This wasn’t a temporary thing, it persisted for a while.)
- On I-880 in downtown San Jose, near the airport: 4 bars, 3G
- At the I-880/101 interchange: 5 bars, 3G
- At the I-101/280 interchange: 4 bars, 3G
- Exit ramp, I-101 and Blossom Hill Road, South San Jose: 1 bar, 3G
- Outside the front door of my office in South San Jose, about half a mile from I-101: 1 bar, 3G
- Just inside the front door of my office, a single-story building with floor to ceiling glass in the lobby: 1 bar, EDGE
And when I sit at my desk, I often get no signal at all.
While I do believe that the iPhone is less capable of locking on to a good signal then other phones, I think it is clear that the major problem here is two-fold, on the part of AT&T: first, they tend to cover highways but not neighborhoods. Second, the frequency they use is unable to penetrate the smallest of buildings — from my one-story, wood-frame bungalow in downtown to a glass-walled warehouse type office near the freeway. I have yet to find any building that 3G can penetrate around here, which tends to make the whole system pointless. In an era where people usually have to go outside to smoke, we now increasingly find that people have to go outside to make a phone call.
This is 2008, by the way. Funny how technology is often so disappointing, isn’t it?
Addendum, 4:30pm: Driving home along the same route this afternoon, I got the 5 bars of 3G pretty consistently when on Interstate 101. Despite that beautiful, full signal I was unable to make calls. I tried 5 times to call someone, each time I was greeted by a “Call Failed” message. The 6th time I got through. So, even with a full 3G signal, I can’t make calls? Lovely.