iPhone 3G: complaints mount about data service speeds

How often are users receiving true 3G for their data transmission speed with the iPhone 3G?

How often are users receiving true 3G for their data transmission speed with the iPhone 3G? After all, Apple and AT&T promote the phone as being "twice as fast" as its predecessor.

Not often enough, apparently. Most users don't seem to be experiencing the near Wi-Fi-like performance that the 3G spec promises.

In informal testing, I had mixed results. My iPhone 3G has some difficulties living up to the promised speed boost, which AT&T says should "typically" range from 600 to 1400 kilobits per second on its 3G network. You also can use AT&T's EDGE service with any iPhone--that network delivers average data speeds between 75 kbps and 135 kbps, with "bursts of speed reaching 200 kbps."

(By comparison, Wi-Fi, also usable with iPhones, can deliver speeds in excess of 1500 kbps.) The iPhone 3G clearly indicates which network you're on.

Based on the outpouring of complaints on blogs, forums, and message boards across the Web--and based on my own experiences--a broad range of speeds exists, and few users report experiencing near-Wi-Fi performance. How broad a speed range you get depends on what part of the country you're in. (Wired is trying to get a handle onthe scope of the problem worldwide with a Global iPhone 3g study. And the problems may key to the chips inside the phones, according to a report by BusinessWeek.)

Note: AT&T charges $US10 a month more for the iPhone 3G's data plan than it did for the original 2G iPhone's plan.

3G vs. EDGE

Users remain enthralled with the iPhone itself--but the service woes have tarnished the experience. In a comment left at GigaOM, for example, user Len Fischer posted, "Overall, I love the device, but the 3G service could be better. I get the sense that AT&T is still tuning the 3G network, but they shouldn't be making us pay considerably more (on a percentage basis) for service that isn't much of an improvement or which remains inconsistent."

Inconsistent is the key word here. The data speeds I saw using my iPhone 3G in tests in five different U.S. metro areas--Chicago, Dallas, New York, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco--fell far short of AT&T's claims. I have yet to crack 600 kbps using my iPhone; more typically, I average 300 kbps. The purported 1400 kbps that 3G can deliver would indeed approach the Wi-Fi-like speeds you can achieve on the iPhone, as Steve Jobs promised in his Worldwide Developers' Conference keynote introducing the device in June. Wi-Fi performance on the iPhone can actually exceed 1400 kbps; I experienced 1663 kbps using my iPhone and an airport lounge's T-Mobile HotSpot, for example.

Informal Test Results

The speed difference, or lack thereof, was actually among the first things I noticed when I first began using the iPhone 3G the weekend it went on sale in July. In the New York metro area--on a stretch of Long Island that was clearly denoted as 3G capable on AT&T's coverage maps--I averaged around 200 kbps--about on a par with what I achieved using EDGE in that same area. Not once did the phone attain 400 kbps.

(For all of my tests, I used inetworktest.com to gauge bandwidth performance. This site produced similar results to other iPhone bandwidth metering sites.)

Afterwards, I discussed my experiences with AT&T; the company's network technicians said they were surprised to hear of my issues. While they wouldn't provide specifics, AT&T did say that after I left the Long Island region, the network technicians made a few tweaks to the network in that area that should have improved performance.

Here in San Francisco, I average about 325 kbps on my iPhone 3G--still a far cry from AT&T's purported "typical" 3G speeds. The good news? This performance was more than double that of EDGE performance in the same area (which I measured at 115 kbps).

As I've come to learn, my experience in San Francisco is not unlike those of people in other parts of the country. "Here in NYC I've found that 3G speed is all over the place," one commenter notes on Macworld.com. And Blogger Om Malik of GigaOM finds "the speeds are marginally better than the old EDGE network." How Fast Is Fast?

It's reasonable to expect that your iPhone 3G's data performance will be better than its EDGE performance. In various locations in Pittsburgh and at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, for example, 3G data transfers with my iPhone took place two to three times as fast as using AT&T's EDGE network.

However, that assumes you'll pick up a 3G network at all: I haven't found one while watching baseball games at AT&T Park in San Francisco, for example. In my nearby neighborhood, I regularly see the 3G network wink in and out, swapping frequently with the EDGE network. AT&T says the neighborhood is slated for more service upgrades later this year. In Pittsburgh, too, I also frequently noticed service switching between EDGE and 3G.

Is It the Network?

How much of this performance issue is related to AT&T's network and how much can be attributed to the iPhone itself remains unclear. Some of the problems may be credited to the nascent, still maturing nature of the network (the company says it offers 3G access in 305 "major metropolitan areas" and expects to add 45 more by the end of 2008). AT&T remains ahead of fellow GSM mobile provider T-Mobile, which will officially launch its 3G network in 20 cities this October, at initial promised speeds of only 200 to 300 kbps.

The performance issues are not just about the AT&T data network, though. IPhone users report both phone reception issues with AT&T as well as with carriers in other regions, including Canada and Europe. And after Apple released its iPhone 2.01 firmware, some users reported seeing dramatic performance improvements when loading Web pages.

My experience has been mixed: Performance has shown moderate improvement--by about 100 kbps on average--but I'm still well below the "typical" 600 kbps speed.

My biggest concern is that I have yet to experience anything remotely approaching what AT&T says its network is capable of. Network coverage varies, of course, and it's reasonable to expect the iPhone 3G's performance will vary too, depending upon what region you're in and even down to which street corner you're on or how deep into a building you are.

But that's an awful lot of variables for a service that costs $10 per month more than last year's--and that supposedly challenges Wi-Fi.

Tags at&tmobile phonessmartphonesiphone 3g

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Melissa J. Perenson

PC World (US online)

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