AT&T Wireless has millions of US customers, and it continues to boast the largest number of smartphone users. Despite this, we hear numerous complaints from readers and reporters that AT&T 3G coverage is spotty; even if AT&T has reasonably fast 3G coverage where you live, that doesn't necessarily mean the coverage is good where you work or where you travel most often.
From this point of view, frankly, Verizon's 3G coverage map is frankly more impressive. Yes, AT&T's 3G coverage area includes the most densely populated areas, and where available it tends to be the fastest 3G network available. And yes, smartphones will still work with AT&T's EDGE network, which has coverage comparable to Verizon's network.
AT&T is working to improve coverage in some areas, and the company has promised to invest billions in additional infrastructure. But apart from coverage concerns, AT&T has other "issues" with its services that, in our view, are customer-hostile.
Here's a list of the top problems we identified, as well as ways AT&T could make itself more customer-friendly.
Raw femtocell deal
AT&T has attempted to address the spotty coverage issues, in part, by offering a femtocell product dubbed the 3G MicroCell. When you plug the MicroCell into to your broadband router, you'll get a more or less private mini 3G tower in your house.
The idea is nice in theory, until you realize how much this thing costs. First, it's $150 for the unit. Then, the 3G MicroCell uses the backhaul that you pay for to complete calls and move data between your mobile device and the rest of the network.
On top of that, calls made through the MicroCell use up your monthly allotment of minutes. If you want unlimited calling using your own backhaul through the device you just bought for $150, that's an additional $20 per month. However, customers that opt for the $20 unlimited calling plan can get a $100 rebate on the device.
Also, any data that goes through the device (again, using the backhaul that you are already paying for) comes out of your monthly allowanceâ€"and an unlimited plan isn't even an option. To be fair, you'll probably be using WiFi when at home, however. (AT&T is also promoting WiFi as an alternative to 3G data even away from home by giving smartphone users free access to its network of hotspots.)
There are other annoying quirks, though. If you have guests with AT&T devices, they won't automatically get better reception in your home or apartmentâ€"you have to manually configure your MicroCell to work with each of their phones individually.
And finally, readers have told Ars that the devices themselves aren't especially reliableâ€"expect occasional dropped connections that require resetting the MicroCell.
Ultimately, you end up paying even more to address AT&T's spotty coverageâ€"for the MicroCell and for the backhaul that you supply, all on top of your monthly voice and data planâ€"and the solution isn't even foolproof. AT&T should offer one of these devices free or at a subsidized price to customers who report connection problems. Femtocells should be a temporary solution, though; expanding 3G coverage will make femtocells obsolete in most cases.
We were going to ding AT&T for its rather lackluster Android lineup, but the company announced last week that it will get its own version of the Samsung Galaxy Sâ€"rechristened the Samsung Captivateâ€"sometime "soon." Would we have to strike this item from our list?
Nope. AT&T has figured out a way to make even this highly anticipated Android handsetâ€"indeed all Android handsets offered by AT&Tâ€"consumer-hostile.
AT&T modifies its version of Android to eliminate the option to install apps from sources other than Android Marketplace. One of the biggest advantages that Google and Android fans toutâ€"the openness of the platform compared to, say, Apple's iPhoneâ€"has been purposefully disabled by AT&T. This gives AT&T more control over what you can install, and therefore do, with your phone. AT&T spokesperson Seth Bloom told Ars that it is working to develop a way for beta testers and enterprise users load non-Marketplace apps, but that doesn't address the needs of all users.
AT&T also installs its own branded versions of some apps that can't be removed from the device, many of which come with extra charges to use. I'm sure AT&T has its reasons for doing this (like "monetizing otherwise free services"), but it's downright anti-consumer and antithetical to the Android ethos. AT&T should stop removing features it can't immediately use to bilk customers for more money and focus instead on providing customers with top-notch, reliable wireless data and voice service on a wide range of hardware.
Now that AT&T no longer offers unlimited data and charges by the gigabyte, it needs to offer data rollover. AT&T constantly advertises that the voice minutes included in your monthly plan are "your minutes" and you should "get to keep them."
We see no difference whatsoever when it comes to dataâ€"including SMS and MMS messaging. If you pay for 2 billion bits, and you don't use all of them in one month, you should be able to add them to next month's allotment. This goes for iPad data plans, too.
Say what you will about AT&T's rejiggering of its data plan pricingâ€"some people might save, others will pay more as data demands increaseâ€"but the $20 extra charge for tethering is nothing other than a shameless grab for extra cash without providing customers any additional value.
If the additional $20 included an additional data allowance, as other carriers offer, it would be far easier to swallow AT&T's explanation that tethering users "use more data." Instead, AT&T is charging customers an extra $20 to enable a native feature of their handset, and doing so without offering any extra data capacity. It's pure greed, and it's even worse that AT&T tried to frame the charge as giving iPhone customers in particular a feature "they didn't have before."
AT&T should, at a minimum, give tethering users an additional 2GB allowance for the extra $20; better yet, it could follow Rogers' lead in Canada and just offer tethering as a free service, since customers are already paying for the data.
Nickel-and-diming to death
If you thought monthly data plans and MicroCell fees were the end of AT&T finding ways to charge customers for services that should be free, think again. We'll skip the ridiculously expensive charges for SMS messaging, but we will direct you toward the $4.99 per month service for "Voice Dial."
Or how about paying as much as $14.99 per month for "Family Map for iPhone," which lets you see your kids' or spouse's whereabouts when they aren't at home? Did we mention that this simple map mashup costs $14.99? Every month?
Customer data breaches
Exactly how customers will be affected by recent data breaches remains unclear. However, no one likes having information they believe to be private released into the wild, whether that is merely an e-mail address or full account details. The two recent incidents involving revealing customer information to third parties should absolutely make customers wary about AT&T's ability to keep their information safe.
AT&T can't take back what happened, but it should do more than point fingers at hacker groups. It needs to be more transparent about such issues, alerting customers before they find out that problems exist by reading about the issue on Gawker. The company also needs to do something to restore customer confidence that problems like thisâ€"which were by all accounts preventableâ€"don't happen again.
Poor customer relations
AT&T already has one of the lowest satisfaction ratings among consumers. Blocking useful apps, blaming customers for network problems, and threatening customers that take the time to explain their complaints aren't going to help one bit. Such attitudes will only alienate customers furtherâ€"the very same high-paying customers that are driving the company's bottom line.
In our view, AT&T's executives should spend less time tooting their own horn about how great AT&T will be in five years, and spend more time making AT&T a great value for consumers today.
Andâ€"I say this as a Luke Wilson fanâ€"drop the smug commercials; they're only making things worse. If AT&T wants us to "rethink what's possible," then AT&T should rethink how it can provide consumers with better service for a reasonable price.