Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When Buying Mobile Devices, Buy the Network First

This week AT&T announced that it was purchasing T-Mobile USA for $39 billion. Whether or not this acquisition goes through, it brought up an issue for me. I’ve been spending my time telling Baby Boomers how to use their iPhones and iPads. What I haven’t addressed is the importance of the network in your enjoyment of these items. It's important to have strong signals and a stable network to power the devices you use. Otherwise, they don't operate well, and you won't like them.

The importance of the network hit home for me last Friday night. I was in Manhattan and meeting my husband and some friends for dinner. I was sitting comfortably at the table waiting for them to arrive. When ten minutes went by, I decided to call, first my husband, then my friends. The first thing that happened is that I couldn’t get a signal at the table where I was seated and there was no Wi-Fi available to use. In a lot of places I have free Wi-Fi through Optimum Online, but not in this particular part of New York.

I left the table to go outside the restaurant to make the call.  There, my phone read that I had a signal, but two attempts at calling my husband ended up not going through. A third call went directly to voice mail. A forth call got a busy signal. I know my husband wasn’t on the phone at this time. A call to my friends also dropped and another went direct to voice mail. I tried sending a text, but that didn’t go through either.

Next, I tried sending an email, hoping that the data network was better than the voice network.  You could see the symbol in the left corner of the phone, indicating that the phone was trying to catch a signal to send the email.  That email was never completed. The culprit was AT&T’s network in NYC, which has been the subject of many complaints. 
This is what my signal indicator looks like. The star shape shows the phone looking for a signal. This was taken inside my house where I have Wi-Fi and a strong AT&T signal (bars)

AT&T is aware of its problems in NYC and continues to upgrade its systems there. Articles have been written about people who carry two phones in NYC, one for voice calls and another for data. However, this doesn’t help you when you are stuck without cell phone service at a crucial time. Luckily, being late for dinner doesn’t qualify as crucial. However when you’ve spent hundreds of dollars on an iPhone or iPad, and you’ve gotten a data plan, you want it to work when you want it to work.

As you know, if the network is a problem you can’t take advantage of all the cool aspects of many of the apps I’ve been talking about in this column. Most of them rely on consumers being able to access a good signal, whether data or voice. Wi-Fi, while available now more than ever,  isn’t always available to help you. Another problem: if you don’t have a strong network signal, your phone keeps trying and trying to download your email etc., using up your battery life.

So here’s the thing.  You all know I’m an iPhone aficionado. I could have switched to Verizon for better service in NYC when Verizon announced they would carry the iPhone. I didn’t, and here is why: my house is in New Jersey and when in the past I used Verizon, I was unable to use my cell phone in my house because Verizon doesn’t have a tower nearby. AT&T, on the other hand, does have a tower nearby and I can use my AT&T phone easily in my house. I know that this problem hasn’t been overcome over the years because visitors to my house who have Verizon experience the same problem. Visitors with Sprint often find their batteries depleted as their phones continuously search for a signal.  

So I’ve chosen to have cell service at home over cell service in NYC.  You too will have to make similar choices. Choose the service that works best for you as an individual or your family as a whole.  Then decide on the tablet or smart phone that is right for you.

 If the regulators let AT&T purchase T-Mobile it will be good for some consumers and bad for others. AT&T users will have more coverage in places like NYC where cell signals are a problem. T-Mobile users will probably lose out on pricing. We will all lose out on choices.  The bottom line remains, when buying your iPhone or any other mobile device, always buy the network first. Of course, as in my case, that doesn't always work out.

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