We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

Slim and sleek as it is, the

iPhone is really the Hummer of cell phones.

It's a data guzzler. Owners use them like minicomputers, which they are, and use them a lot. Not only do iPhone owners download applications, stream music and videos and browse the Web at higher rates than the average smartphone user, the average iPhone owner can use 10 times the network capacity used by the average smartphone user.

"They don't even realize how much data they're using," said Gene Munster, a senior securities analyst with Piper Jaffray.

The result is dropped calls, spotty service, delayed text and voice messages and glacial download speeds as AT&T's cellular network strains to meet the demand. Another result is outraged customers.

Cell phone owners using other carriers may gloat now, but the problems of AT&T and the iPhone portend their future. Other networks could become stressed as well as more sophisticated phones encouraging such intense use become popular, analysts say.

Taylor Sbicca, a 27-year-old systems administrator in San Francisco, checks his iPhone 10 to 15 times a day. But he is not making calls. He checks the scores of the previous night's baseball game and updates his Twitter stream. He checks the weather report to see if he needs a coat before heading out to dinner -- then he picks a restaurant on Yelp and maps the quickest way to get there.

Or at least, he tries to.

"It's so slow, it feels like I'm on a dial-up modem," he said.

Shazam, an application that identifies songs being played on the radio or TV, takes so long to load that the tune may be over by the time the app is ready to hear it.

And picking up a cell signal in his apartment? "You hit the dial button and the phone just sits there, saying it's connecting for 30 seconds."

More than 20 million other smartphone users are on the AT&T network, but other phones do not drain the network the way the 9 million

iPhones users do. That is why the howls of protest are more numerous in dense urban areas with higher concentrations of iPhone owners.

"It's almost worthless to try and get on 3G during peak times in those cities," Munster said, referring to the 3G network. "When too many users get in the area, the call drops."

The problems seem particularly pronounced in New York and San Francisco.

Owners of the iPhone 3GS, the newest model, "have probably increased their usage by about 100 percent," said Chetan Sharma, an independent wireless analyst. "It's faster so they are using it more on a daily basis."

Sharma compares the problem to water flowing through a pipe.

"It can only funnel so much at a given time," he said. "It comes down to peak capacity loads, or spikes in data usage. That's why you see these problems at conferences or in large cities with high concentration of iPhone users."

AT&T's right to be the exclusive carrier for iPhone in the United States has been a golden ticket for the wireless company.

The average iPhone owner pays AT&T $2,000 during his two-year contract -- roughly twice the amount of the average mobile phone customer.

But at the same time the iPhone has become an Achilles' heel for the company.

"It's been a challenging year for us," said John Donovan, the chief technology office of AT&T. "Overnight, we're seeing a radical shift in how people are using their phones," he said. "There's just no parallel for the demand."

AT&T says the majority of the nearly $18 billion that it will spend this year on its networks will be diverted into upgrades and expansions to meet the surging demands on the 3G network. The company intends to erect an additional 2,100 cell towers to fill out patchy coverage, upgrade existing cell sites by adding fiber optic connectivity to deliver data faster and add other technology to provide stronger cell signals.

But AT&T faces another cost -- to its reputation. AT&T's deal with Apple is said to expire as early as next year, at which point other carriers in the United States would be able to sell the popular Apple phones. Indeed, a recent survey by Pricegrabber.com found that 34 percent of respondents pinpointed AT&T as the primary reason for not buying an iPhone.

AT&T might be in the spotlight now, analysts say, but other carriers will face similar problems as they sell more smartphones, laptop cards and eventually tablets that encourage high data usage.

Globally, mobile data traffic is expected to double every year through 2013, according to Cisco Systems, which makes network gear.

"Whether an iPhone, a Storm or a Gphone, the world is changing."

Munster said. "We're just starting to scratch the surface of these issues that AT&T is facing."

(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS) In preparation for the next wave of smartphones and data demands, all the carriers are rushing to introduce the next-generation of wireless networks, called 4G.

Analysts expect that in a year or so, AT&T's network will have improved significantly -- but it may not be soon enough for some iPhone owners paying for the higher-priced data plans, like Sbicca, who says he plans to switch carriers as soon as the iPhone becomes available on other networks.

"What good is having all those applications if you don't have the speed to run them?" he said. "It's not exactly rocket science here. It's pretty standard stuff to be able to make a phone call."

Show Comment