Relief Is on the Way for Bay Area AT&T Customers

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on June 15, 2009

att_logo.jpgLong suffering AT&T wireless customers in the San Francisco Bay area, including legions of iPhone users, are going to get some badly needed relief this fall. The company plans a major network upgrade in the region that should help eliminate dead spots and areas of poor coverage, reduce dropped calls, and, especially, improve coverage inside buildings.

I am convinced a lot of the bad rap AT&T gets among iPhone users (see, for example, the comments on my colleague Arik Hesseldahl’s post) is the result of serious coverage problems in the Bay area, which, of course, is chock full of tech opinion leaders of all sorts.

By the end of the year, company officials say, AT&T plans to turn on 3G service on its 850 MHz network in the Bay area. Based on my experience as an AT&T customer in the Washington, D.C., area, where 850 MHz 3G was lit up last year, this is likely to produce dramatic improvements in service. In Washington and up the coast to Boston, AT&T coverage may be on average a bit worse than Verizon Wireless’, but only a bit.

Why it has taken AT&T so long to fix San Francisco remains a mystery. I've spent a lot of time in the Bay area over the past few weeks and came to realize just how bad things were. For example, when I was out there just last week for Apple's Worldwide Developers' Conference, I discovered that my data coverage dropped to GPRS--the wireless equivalent of slow dial-up--while riding in a cab on the Bayshore Freeway (101) about a mile from San Francisco International Airport.

Spectrum in the 800 MHz band is a legacy of the analog cell service set up in the 1980s. Back then, the government gave spectrum--it hadn't discovered there was a lot of money to be made by selling it--to two carriers in each market. In northern California, the original carriers were PacTel Cellular and GTE Mobilenet. Although AT&T ended up acquiring the parent of PacTel and Verizon bought GTE, a complex series of transactions resulted in each owning the others wireless spectrum.

AT&T and Verizon both run service in two bands--1900 MHz, plus 800 MHz for Verizon and 850 MHz for AT&T. When Verizon began offering its EV-DO 3G data service, it did so at both 1900 and 800. But AT&T, whose migration to 3G was more complicated because of both business and technical issues, has been very slow to bring up 3G at 850.

Adding 850 will have two big advantages for customers. First, it means there's a lot more bandwidth available. Second, the ability of radio waves to penetrate obstacles such as concrete and steel buildings is inversely proportional to the frequency, so the lower frequency spectrum should offer much better in-building coverage.

AT&T expects the 850 MHz "overlay" to begin in the fall and be completed by yearend.

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Reader Comments

Pat Meier-Johnson

June 15, 2009 04:16 PM

Argh, it's about time! It'll be nice to say goodbye to dropped connections while driving through cuts in the hills approaching the Golden Gate Bridge or along undulating vineyard roads between Marin and the Napa Valley.

Uri

June 15, 2009 08:40 PM

Does that mean that I can use it to actually speak to people? Wow! and I don't have to make all my calls over wi-fi with truphone, skype or fring.

Now all that's left is to add decent customer service at AT&T.

Mary Ann

June 16, 2009 03:42 PM

Lucky Bay Area. I can only get dial-up where I live, an AT&T served area. No cell, wireless, cable, no WiFi; possible satelite but cost & speeds make it not worthy. 30 miles from the Capital of the Great State of California! Follow the money.

Arkanjil

August 4, 2009 01:14 PM

Alas, this sort of thing was promised to Austin during the last SxSW festival, but service only improved after the festival ended. The kicker is that they knew what an opinionated, iPhone carrying hipster crowd comes to SxSW each and every year, and they *still* failed to scale up for it.

The best thing that can be said about AT&T's quality of service is that their press releases are copious and well formatted...

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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