AT&T (T) has had a dreadful few weeks. It has taken flack for going with tiered data plans, an iPad security breach and the inability to field overwhelming demand for Apple’s iPhone 4. Once that smoke clears you can go back to complaining about dropped calls on the iPhone. Does AT&T really deserve all of the arrows in its back?
Beating up on AT&T has been way too easy of late. So let’s play Monday morning contrarian for giggles. Perhaps AT&T shouldn’t be on the receiving end of all the shrapnel it has been getting.
OK, you can stop laughing now, but there’s something to the argument. As a mobile industry observer, I can’t wait to see the iPhone go to Verizon—something that has been rumored forever. Why? I want to see if AT&T’s network really stinks. It’s quite possible that AT&T has merely been the canary in the data usage barrage coal mine. AT&T is just on the bleeding edge of wireless networks that can’t hang with data demand. Maybe none of the networks can handle the iPhone.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s tackle the moving AT&T parts one by one.
Tiered data plans: AT&T recently moved to capped data plans. We all know the details by now. It’s $15 for 200MB and $25 for 2GB. Go over those data caps and it will cost you extra. Fans of unlimited data plans freaked. What about my streaming of Pandora all day they asked? What about World Cup soccer streaming? I want my mobile TV, they cried. Well folks, you knew the caps were going to come. Carriers either put the unlimited data caps genie back in the bottle now or risk a real debacle when there’s a wireless spectrum crunch. Tiered plans just make good business sense. AT&T took all the whoop ass, but now Verizon Wireless (VZ) appears to be ready to follow on data plan caps. Now everyone will follow.
AT&T’s systems blew up from iPhone 4 orders. There are also questions about Apple’s IT performance in this one too, but guess who is getting shot? AT&T of course. Now you can question the planning on this one, but 600,000 pre-orders represent a lot of demand. Who plans for a launch like that? Even Piper Jaffray Gene Munster was predicting 1 million iPhone 4s over a few days. That target will be handily beat. Now analysts are overshooting to the upside on iPhone 4 unit shipments. Jeffrey Fidacaro, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial, said in a research note:
Given the size of the iPhone 4 pre-order and our analysis of the expected upgrade cycle, particularly the remaining 3G users, we believe the full launch weekend of June 24-27 is shaping up to potentially be a 2 million-3 million iPhone event, about 2-3x higher than the one million units sold over the first three days for both the 3GS and 3G launches.
So AT&T failed to predict never-seen-before demand for a new phone. Cut it some slack.
AT&T’s network can’t hang with data happy iPhone users. Here’s one where we’ll never know where the truth lies. AT&T’s network takes the hit, but who would have predicted the data usage coming down the iPhone pike. Verizon Wireless says is can handle the iPhone, but how does it really know? AT&T was the guinea pig for an explosion of data. The funny part about all of this: If Verizon Wireless follows AT&T on data plan caps we may never know whether AT&T’s network really stunk. Verizon Wireless has had 3 years to study the iPhone, model its data usage and make fun of AT&T. One other point: AT&T has been upfront about its network usage and has worked to fix it. If AT&T could get coverage in San Francisco and New York right it may shut up a lot of tech writers.
And finally there’s the iPad data breach. AT&T was nailed and then threw gas on the fire by going after the folks that found the vulnerability. It’s hard to defend AT&T on this one, but you can say that there was a much-needed dose of context needed when the news broke. Memo to AT&T: Don’t apologize about a security breach and then try to downplay it because of malicious hackers.
Final score: 3-1. Out of the four things that have made AT&T a pinata you can argue three of them are a bit overblown.