Trouble in cell phone land


Some rights reserved by cobalt123I found myself riveted to the most recent issue of the San Francisco Business Times during Monday’s Marin Professionals meeting.
That’s not altogether surprising, as Jud Walsh, director of business development for the paper, spoke about how business news can augment the job search.
But while Walsh focused on content (as Spartan as it was), my attention turned to the Times’ writing and editing. As I delved deeper into the lead story, headlined “AT&T battles dead zones,” it became increasingly more apparent that the art of business reporting has dropped off significantly.
In fact, the AT&T story — which fails to mention a number of salient issues in the cell phone world — indicates a much larger problem: cut-rate journalism in an era of drastic cost reductions.
The cell phone story, written by Patrick Hoge, explains how AT&T is spending billions to upgrade its California service amid complaints over dropped calls. Indeed, as the author points out, AT&T’s problems began even as it scored a virtual coup in the phone wars, becoming the exclusive provider for the iPhone, in 2007.
The sales boom led to an approximately 5,000 percent spike in data traffic for AT&T, according to reports. This fueled an increase in dropped calls in the greater San Francisco area and New York, which have the densest clusters of smart phone customers.
As a result, the Business Times said, AT&T took a beating in a survey of customer satisfaction in Western states by J.D. Power.  The spotty coverage, it adds, has led some Bay Area businesses to switch carriers.
Why so many dropped calls in the Bay Area? Aside from all the users, the Business Times says, the “hills and valleys accentuate the limitations of an already challenged network.”
But there’s no mention of a design flaw in the iPhone 4 antenna that contributed to AT&T’s woes. Customers reported that those little bars indicating signal strength would disappear when they cradled the device in a particular way. This sometimes results in dropped calls.
Apple played down the issue, saying first that all phones had the same problems, then attributing it all to a software glitch. Consumer Report, however, contradicted the company, saying: “Our findings call into question the recent claim by Apple that the iPhone 4’s signal-strength issues were largely an optical illusion caused by faulty software that ‘mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength.’ The tests also indicate that AT&T’s network might not be the primary suspect in the iPhone 4’s much-reported signal woes.”
Michael Arrington of Techcrunch, who says he recently bought an iPhone to better familiarize himself with the hot gadget, can attest to the frustrations.  “Nearly every call I’ve had has ended by it being dropped,” Arrington says in a blog post. “It doesn’t matter how many bars I have, calls are dropped. Yesterday I had a five part conversation that ended every few minutes. It’s particularly bad when you’re driving.”
The Business Times also fails to mention that AT&T’s exclusivity agreement with Apple is coming to an end, possibly as early as February, with Verizon muscling its way in. Though news reports suggest that relatively few AT&T customers will end their contracts early and switch to competitor Verizon, the long-term consequences could be quite substantial.
According to Credit Suisse, Verizon will see a huge increase in new subscriptions, from 2 million in 2010 to 4 million next year.
It’s therefore likely that Verizon will inherit at least some of the same headaches that have plagued AT&T. As the New York Times says, other networks could also feel the weight as more powerful phones come onto the market at a rapid pace.
In fact, we now use the devices for almost everything, from surfing the Internet to sending text messages and sharing photos snapped on the very same phone. Indeed, this “always-on” technology, fed by location-aware software and cool apps, portends a somewhat troubling future as carriers try to keep pace with an explosion of users.

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