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iPhone/AT&T a Complete FAIL at CES…Not Willing to Risk my Safety or Sanity



iphone_att_signalI’m still in Las Vegas after the masses have left the building. And I still can’t use my iPhone as a phone. I love the device itself, but the connectivity problems have been a nightmare while in Las Vegas. My Sprint MiFi helped alleviate some of the problems, but relying on my iPhone 3GS with AT&T service is no longer a viable option. I had far more failed calls than successful calls. Several of my text messages sent to the GBM and failed.

I don’t remember my iPhone 3G performing so poorly last year at CES, even though I was at the same hotel and venues. The service was pretty bad at CES 2009, but nothing like this. Then again, the only person helping me cover the show for was Amisha (my wife) and I didn’t have to communicate with her all that much as we were together most of the time except when she went off to shoot a video or two. With a larger team I had to communicate a lot more, which may have been why the connectivity issues made my blood boil.

Besides the dropped calls, lack of Internet access and calls going to straight to voicemail, I also had to deal with the annoyance of false bars in more places. The iPhone 3GS would often display five bars of signal strength and a 3G icon when I picked it up to place a call. When I dialed a phone number I’d more often than not get a couple of beeps and an ugly “Call Failed” notice splashed on the display.

Not being able to work how I want is one thing, but there’s a more important reason I’m getting an Android phone and an alternate phone for my wife: personal safety. On Saturday night I was standing in front of the Bellagio hotel with the GBM/ team when I received a CNN app alert on my iPhone that there’d been a 6.5 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Northern California. We live in San Francisco, and have of dozens of family members. I panicked. I lived through the 1989 San Francsico Earthquake, which was hit 6.9 on the Richter scale and memories of burning building, fallen highways and shaking buildings flashed before my eyes.

I tried tapping on my the CNN news app, but I couldn’t get it connected to the Internet. I tried calling my wife, but the first few tries failed. When the call did go through it went straight to her iPhone’s voicemail. Despite having a zBoost installed in our home the signal is still too week to reliably place and receive calls via AT&T. I tried calling our home number, which goes through Comcast’s VOIP platform. No answer there either. I tried calling my parents (also in San Francsico AT&T) and my mom’s phone went straight to voicemail. My dad didn’t answer his phone after several rings. Most of my extended family members are also on the AT&T network and our neighborhood (smack dab in the middle of SF) has horrid reception. I can’t imagine how bad the service will be in San Francisco next time a disaster hits.

Rather than dialing up and down the family tree, I called MyAssist, a service I used extensively while traveling in India. I asked Joanna, one of the service’s virtual personal assistants, to tell me what was going on with the earthquake and that I needed help checking in on my family if SF was impacted. She quickly assured me that the earthquake was near Eureka, which is over 250 miles north of the city.

Joanna had looked up our local newspaper and the CNN article at my request. She went the extra mile and sent me an email with the links so I could read the full stories when I had web access again.

Dear Mr. Lanier,

Below are the links you requested for information on the earthquake near Eureka, CA. Should you have questions or need further assistance, please call 877-692-7747 or reply to this e-mail. Have a good weekend!

Best regards,

Joanna F.
Personal Assistance Specialist

I breathed a sigh of relief and am certainly going to convert the MyAssist review trial into a paid subscription, which is only $9.99 per month for unlimited access. The whole panic situation was resolved in just a couple of minutes.

My family survived A&T’s craptastic coverage this time around, but I’m not willing to leave our safety in the hands of the company. I’ve been in real emergency situations before I switched to AT&T and I never want to have to wonder if I will or won’t be able to call an ambulance or the police. Speaking of the police, my brother is a police officer and I’m going to try and encourage him to pick up a spare phone, even if it’s on a pre-paid plan for emergencies.

The company has revenues of well over $100 billion dollars per year and net profits of about $12 billion per year, but for some reason they can’t ge their act together enough to make it possible for me to place a call to and from two of the largest cities in the western U.S. I understand that building a reliable network is a massive undertaking, but AT&T has over 80 million subscribers paying their bills. In my case, I pay about $200 per month for our pair of iPhones.

I really enjoy the iPhone’s user interface, applications and am locked into a contract, which are all reasons why I won’t simply be trading in our iPhones for new devices. Instead, I’m going to have to pick up a new phone and a new carrier. As of right now, my plan is to buy a Google Nexus One unless I find a phone I prefer more in the next couple of days and sign up for a T-Mobile plan of some kind. The reason I’m leaning towards T-Mobile is because the company is in the process of installing 38 antenna sites in San Francisco, including four in my neighborhood. I can also use the phone overseas since it’s quad-band and unlocked.

My experience with AT&T over the past eight days have been a real wake up call. It’s time add a phone and network that are capable of placing calls to my otherwise very well-stocked emergency preparedness kit.



  1. Clavain

    01/11/2010 at 2:36 pm

    Hi Xavier,

    Interesting post.

    I too hate that feeling, trying to get through to my nearest and dearest and failing due to tech problems. Though to be honest it doesn’t happen very often here in Europe. The coveage is just about perfect. Except maybe on New Years Eve.

    Glad to hear if all worked out for you.

    I have often wondered why so few people ever say anything about the iPhone as a phone. Oh they go-on-and-on about the app store and the great interface and about being able to identify some-heard-on-the-radio piece of music, but how does it work as a phone?

    I have a plain and simple Nokia 6300. No app store, no internet, just a phone. But what a phone. Made of stainless steel so you can throw it on the floor and it will just bounce. A scratch resistant face so after 14 months of being inside my trouser pocket beside keys and coins and what-not it still isn’t scratched. And I get a week between charges. Always a good signal and the reception is loud and clear.

    I wonder how many people would have changed away from the iPhone if they weren’t locked in?

    Clever move that.


  2. Xavier

    01/11/2010 at 2:55 pm

    I sure would like something with a week long battery life, but with my line of work of running web sites and taking care of multimedia projects for clients I really do need web/photos/apps at all time.Maybe I’ll buy a refurbished Nokia or something for when I’m really mobile- and swap SIMs.

  3. Paul Harrigan

    01/11/2010 at 7:03 pm

    I have had few problems with AT&T, so my perspective is different.

    Still, the Nexus One looks good and since I’m about to buy another smartphone for my wife, I may move us to TMobile. (I will never use Verizon again after dealing with all its fames and limitations.)

    It’ll be interesting to see your comments about the google phone.

  4. Oliver

    01/11/2010 at 7:19 pm

    Xavier, I certainly am less than happy with AT&T’s performance here in the Bay Area. And Vegas last weekend was pretty much the same experience.

    That said, I wouldn’t expect to get through on any cellphone (or landline) carrier if/when the big one strikes the Bay Area. The networks aren’t going to handle everyone trying to make a call at the same time. Assuming I survive the quake, my hope is that I’ll be able to send out a few SMS before the whole network goes up in smoke :)

  5. C-141XLer

    01/11/2010 at 7:48 pm

    You really need to try a land line in an emergency like an earthquake. They are more likely to survive the earthquake and power disruptions. Then there is the onslaught of users trying to call in and out of the disaster area. Both may be impacted, but a land line is more likely to work in a real disaster – if you could find one! In a situation like yours, everyone starts calling the relatives and friends, and then the carriers become impacted and calls don’t connect. I can’t say that it would have been any better on Verizon, but then they seem to have better capacity so it might have.

  6. Xavier

    01/11/2010 at 8:43 pm

    I agree that land lines are more reliable. In this case a Verizon phone would’ve helped me at least place a call or read the news. The whole scenario was only a couple of minutes long, but I’d rather be as well prepared as possible than not.

  7. Clavain

    01/12/2010 at 2:34 am

    Well as my Mum always says “horses for courses”, meaning you have to choose the right tool for the job.

    And to be really honest, I would love a iPhone. But I use my phone a lot and don’t want to risk having flaky service.

    Never mind, in the future everything will be better ;-)


  8. Cacinok

    01/12/2010 at 10:28 am

    xavier, AT&T’s service is oklahoma has gone down hill in the last year or so. it’s so bad, i’m considering paying the $175 penalty and getting out of my contract w/ AT&T.

    if you buy another phone as insurance, as you mentioned, make sure it’s on a different network. as i’m sure you know prepaid phones function on the established networks. two phones on separate networks are a better safety net than one.

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