Why AT&T Deserves To Fail

03 Jul 2010

AT&T is a very large, very old company. It’s so old, it has the stock ticker symbol “T”. That’s right, just “T”. It’s so large, the US government tried to break it up into a half dozen smaller companies 25 years ago, and ultimately failed. But history is filled with very large, very old institutions that eventually failed: the Roman empire, the Dutch East India company, and the Atlantic slave trade, to name a few.

Recently I bought an HTC Evo (Android) on the Sprint network. My plan was to try it for a few weeks, and if the battery life was as bad as some reviews said it was, or the coverage was as bad as AT&T’s, I would return it.

I’ve barely had the thing for 48 hours and I can’t imagine going back.

More than half of my joy is the phone itself. The iPhone has always been a step backward, since its crippled OS means it can’t run a decent SSH terminal or chat client – two of my three primary uses for a mobile device. (It has a great browser, though.) The newly-named iOS 4 doesn’t fix that. We’ve had multi-tasking on phones since 2002, but Apple can’t seem to get it working on hardware that laptops barely had in 2002.

The Evo evokes a sense of wonder and infinite possibilities, not too different from how it felt as a child to play with a computer for the first time. Unlike the fortress-like atmosphere of an iPhone, the Android OS suggests that if you can think of something to try, it might just work. For example, I browsed to a website offering an mp3, and clicked on the link just to see what would happen. The song started downloading! It showed up in the music player! I could listen to music on the internet without going through the tedious process of docking and syncing with a laptop!

Apple is not trying for this market, though. They’re aiming to be a shinier, more expensive RAZR; a consumer phone that can’t do much, but can do it very well. And they’re very successful at it, to gauge from their sales numbers. Very, very successful. The iPhone is probably the most popular phone in the world. People stood in line 14 hours this week to purchase a modest upgrade.

If, say, a cellphone carrier were able to get an exclusive contract for selling the iPhone for the first five years of its meteoric rise, that carrier might very well make bank. They could become larger than all the other carriers combined! They could add extra fees for the privilege of having an iPhone, and expand their reach and coverage to hitherto unknown extent.

AT&T has this exclusive contract, and they have the privilege fees. But they haven’t expanded their coverage or their reach. They haven’t done anything, as far as I can tell, except shovel wheelbarrows full of money into a Scrooge McDuck vault somewhere, while their name & brand have become a joke. Whatever else AT&T did in the past, they now represent only “incompetent wireless provider” in the mind of the consumer. How did this happen?

I live in the second-most densely populated city in the US, with 6,700 people per square kilometer. In the three years I’ve been using AT&T’s cell network, they have not managed to make a single improvement to their abyssmal coverage. Entire neighborhoods, including popular ones like the Haight and the Mission, are giant dead zones. My friends and I regularly use Skype to make voice calls, out of necessity. If you can’t cover the end of a peninsula 10km on a side, something is seriously wrong. The only rational explanation is that AT&T is not trying.

One excuse often offered is that “cities are hard to cover”. Sorry, I’m not buying it. If the task is difficult, we’d be seeing progress, but slowly. Seeing no progress means the task is either impossible or isn’t being attempted. Since Sprint and Verizon are able to provide excellent coverage, I guess it’s not impossible. So, again, AT&T is not trying.

In fact, their coverage situation is dire throughout the bay area of California. Why would they care to provide coverage to the bay area, though? Aside from it being the home of Apple and 7.4 million people, there’s a really good PR reason why they might want to step up their game here. It’s the home of nearly every tech pundit and blogger on the net. AT&T could improve coverage in every other part of the US, and still get a continuous stream of bad press about their network, because these journalists can’t make a phone call. It’s so self-destructive, it’s mind-boggling.

Apple seems to have given up on AT&T. Their latest new features, like video chat, won’t even try to use AT&T’s network. They’re just hoping that you’ll be in wifi coverage most of the time. And sales of the wifi-only model of the iPad imply that a wifi-only iPhone would probably sell as well as the AT&T one.

All this money in the bank won’t save AT&T any more than it saved Microsoft. And it won’t buy them happiness – ask Scrooge McDuck about that. It might have bought them a future, but it’s probably too late even for that, now.

It doesn’t matter anymore, though. Yesterday, from my Evo, I sent a text message from my bedroom! The future is now!

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