AT&T unveils iPhone app that marks poor service spots

The big question: What will the carrier do with the customer-provided data?

AT&T today released an application for Apple's iPhone that lets customers submit complaints about dropped calls, poor coverage and substandard voice quality.

The free application, called "Mark the Spot," uses the GPS-based location marking of the iPhone 3G and 3GS, and the crude cell tower triangulation in the first-generation iPhone, to determine the user's location, then offers several complaint choices. Users can report dropped or failed calls, data failure, poor voice quality and no-coverage zones.

On the application's iTunes page, AT&T didn't explain how it would use the data customers submitted, saying only that the company is "committed to providing its customers with the best network experience possible," and that the iPhone app would "help contribute toward this goal."

Exactly what AT&T does with the information is the crucial question, said analyst Jack Gold, of J. Gold Associates. "The question I would have is what AT&T will ultimately do with the data.... What's the action plan behind this?" Gold said. "It's easy to make an app like this, but unless this is something AT&T released just to make people think they're doing something about their network problems, the hard part is using the data."

iPhone owners have complained about AT&T's network since Apple unveiled the smartphone in June 2007. Those complaints grew after the July 2008 release of the iPhone 3G, the first model to use the carrier's faster data network, when customers flooded Apple's support forum with stories of weak signals, dropped calls and slower-than-promised data download speeds.

A dozen lawsuits from consumers who were tired of their iPhone 3G devices constantly dropping calls or having trouble connecting to AT&T's network are still pending, although they were consolidated by a federal judge last summer.

"AT&T needed to do something like this," Gold said today, speaking of Mark the Spot. "It's hard to know the extent of the problems with its network, but clearly, there's a fundamental issue with AT&T."

Rival Verizon has taken advantage of AT&T's poor performance -- Consumer Reports recently ranked the carrier at the bottom in U.S. customer satisfaction, for example -- to mock the iPhone's "There's an app for that" line with an ad campaign touting "There's a map for that" and showing Verizon's broader 3G coverage area.

"AT&T has to react to Verizon," said Gold, speculating that the Mark the Spot is another weapon AT&T can use to combat Verizon's claims. "They're getting their butt handed to them."

AT&T has countered with a campaign in which actor Luke Wilson defends the carrier's 3G coverage.

Gold had a suggestion for how to use data like that AT&T being collected with the new iPhone application. "One very cool thing would be if someone would build an app like this, but put the results on a Web site to show the problem areas. Everyone talks about it, but no one really knows the extent of it. That would force the issue."

AT&T did not reply to questions about the Mark the Spot app, including how it plans to use the data, and whether it's part of its anti-Verizon marketing efforts.

Mark the Spot can be downloaded directly to an iPhone running version 3.0 or later of Apple's operating system, or using iTunes ( iTunes page ), then later synchronizing the iPhone to the PC or Mac.

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