The mobile provider wants smartphone users to use WiFi for data
If there were one personal gadget chosen as a symbol of how far technology has advanced in the past 10 years, my vote would be for Apple's iPhone. While other smart phones have certainly risen to compete with it, the iPhone has risen to the level of cultural icon.
Counting the phone my eldest son had “stolen” from him shortly after he cracked the display, and the one that he put through the laundry, my family has bought five of them to date–and I was the final holdout. When my Blackberry recently became e-trash, I gave up my fear of not having physical buttons and bought the iPhone 3GS.
The major fly in the ointment for iPhone users has been the occasional dropped call. While I've been relatively lucky with my service, complaints about dropped iPhone calls in Manhattan and other places have been elevated to a Saturday Night Live punchline.
At the same time, AT&T has said that iPhone and other smartphone users—who amount to 3% of the company's current customer base—account for 40% of the company's network traffic. And that traffic has expanded by almost 5000% over the past three years, as the iPhone and other smartphones have caught on.
So it's no surprise that AT&T Mobility is looking at ways to improve its network's performance. But many of the approaches the company has in mind have nothing to do with making the current network better.
Instead, AT&T is looking to get smartphone users off their network by getting them to use “WiFi” wireless access points, and has made its wireless broadband hotspots free to iPhone users. If you're in a train station, a McDonald's, or a Starbucks, you've got another free route to the Internet from your iPhone.
Unfortunately, you have to be in range of an AT&T WiFi access point to use one–in other words, in a train station, McDonalds, or a Starbucks. You'll also have to configure your phone for each WiFi access point you use. The extra four or five steps before checking your email—and the lack of any real financial incentive to use the WiFi —means that most people will just send their Internet traffic over the cellular network.
And that's why there's concern that AT&T may decide to create financial incentive. AT&T Mobility's chief executive officer, Ralph de la Vega, denied that the company had made any moves to change the pricing structure of iPhone and other smartphone service–most of which is provided right now at a flat rate for unlimited use. Instead, he told the Wall Street Journal, AT&T will offer incentives to customers to use WiFi and other technologies to connect to the Internet from their phones.
In the meantime, it appears that AT&T is trying another approach to solving the iPhone problem in New York City. New Yorkers hoping to avoid the crush of retail and order an iPhone off AT&T's website as an after-Christmas gift are out of luck, for now, as AT&T has blocked them from buying iPhones online.
According to Laura Northrup, weekend editor for consumer watchdog site The Consumerist, a customer service rep in chat said that “New York is not ready for the iPhone” because there weren't enough cell towers in the city to support it. The Consumerist later received a written statement from AT&T spokesman Fletcher Cook that indicated the move was routine: “We periodically modify our promotions and distribution channels.”