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&amp;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&amp;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&amp;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&amp;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&amp;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.