John Paczkowski

Recent Posts by John Paczkowski

Time to Cut AT&T Some Slack, iPhone Users?

Since 2008, AT&T’s network in and around San Francisco has experienced an increase in 3G data traffic of 2,000 percent.

If you find this metric as astonishing as I do, consider this: The increase in Bay Area data traffic is actually below the national average–significantly below. According to AT&T (T) CTO John Donovan, 3G data traffic on the company’s wireless network has risen nearly 5,000 percent in the past 12 quarters nationally (see chart below; click to enlarge).

“Today, we’re seeing unprecedented growth in mobile broadband traffic,” Donovan said during his keynote at the Open Mobile Conference on Nov. 5. “This growth has required extensive rethinking of wireless networks as we know them, as well as significant advances in the supporting IP backbone and other infrastructure.”


A 5,000 percent increase in 3G data traffic: That’s an astonishing figure. Seems to me it’s entirely likely that any carrier that had been first with the iPhone–including catcalling rival Verizon (VZ)–would have suffered network troubles similar to those that plague AT&T today.

No other U.S. carrier offers a super-smartphone that has sold as well as the iPhone and that people use much like a laptop. Sure, Android and Palm (PALM) webOS devices are used in this way as well, but there are far fewer of them and they have significantly fewer data-hungry apps.

Research in Motion (RIMM) offers some BlackBerries that are used this way, but only some, and there are only 3,000 or so apps available for them. iPhone owners have 100,000 apps from which to choose. And while it’s obvious that there are more BlackBerries in use than iPhones, some of these rely on AT&T’s network, which only compounds the carrier’s problems.

So, really, any carrier that had been first to market with the iPhone would have seen its network overtaxed, especially after Apple (AAPL) launched the iPhone 3G and the iTunes App Store. Those events effectively upended traditional planning models for network capacity in a way that no one was prepared for.

Perhaps other carriers would have fared a bit better. Verizon’s 3G network, even back in 2007, was much deeper and broader than AT&T’s. But could it really have supported a 5,000 percent increase in data traffic without incident? I’m not so sure.

Which is not to say that AT&T is blameless. Its network has lagged and continues to do so, and the iPhone and the massive surge in data traffic it brought with it are not entirely responsible for that.

But they are obviously a big factor. It will be interesting, then, to see how Verizon’s network holds up in comparison if and when the carrier gets the iPhone.

[Image Credit: Morgan Stanley Managing Director Mary Meeker]