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iPhone MMS hits US on September 25

AT&T re-clogs arteries

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AT&T has announced that on September 25th it will begin offering MMS service to its iPhone customers, solving one image problem and exacerbating another.

In a brief announcement about the MMS debut, Big Phone says that it's "working relentlessly to innovate and invest in our network to anticipate this growth in usage and to stay ahead of the anticipated growth in data demand."

"Stay ahead" is a wee bit overstated, according to a Wednesday article in The New York Times chronicling iPhone-user anger over "dropped calls, spotty service, delayed text and voice messages and glacial download speeds."

The average iPhone owner - especially those in high-traffic urban areas such as San Francisco and New York - knows that AT&T's current service can be most kindly described as "suboptimal."

The NYT quotes one San Francisco sysadmin as saying "It's so slow, it feels like I'm on a dial-up modem." In our experience here at The Reg's San Francisco bureau, the modem to which he is referring must be a 1200bps V.22. During commute hours, think 300bps Bell 103. Or think no connection whatsoever.

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster agrees, telling the NYT. "It's almost worthless to try and get on 3G during peak times in those cities. When too many users get in the area, the call drops."

And now the load on the overburdened network will increase, packed with bandwidth-gobbling MMS messages.

AT&T CTO John Donovan is contrite, telling the NYT that "It's been a challenging year for us." He also, however, tried to wriggle out of responsibility, saying: "Overnight we’re seeing a radical shift in how people are using their phones. There’s just no parallel for the demand."

We find it hard to believe that Donovan and his company could not have seen the problem coming. Users have been complaining about AT&T's service since, oh, about a nanosecond after the first iPhone was painfully activated in June 2007.

AT&T was plenty willing to enjoy its best-ever sales day when the iPhone 3GS went on sale this June, one month after AT&T chief Randall Stephenson let it be known that "I feel like we are closing the gap on [network demands], but we're not there yet."

Translation: "Sure, we'll sell you an iPhone and lock you into a pricey two-year contract, but don't expect it to work as advertised."

Users have been clamoring - and suing - for MMS support since it became known during the iPhone 3GS's unveiling that AT&T wouldn't offer MMS support until "later this summer."

(September 25th is technically in autumn, of course, but we digress...)

Now they'll get it. But how well it will work is another thing entirely. Our prediction is that it'll gum up AT&T's already-creaking network and add to the flood of bad vibes that the NYT reports.

How bad is AT&T's image problem? Let us count the ways:

  • They still haven't delivered on the promised internet-tethering capabilities of iPhone Software 3.0, no doubt because their network wouldn't be able to handle it.
  • When the iPhone 3GS was released, they ticked off their most ardent early-adopter customers by charging a hefty fee for the privilege of upgrading to it.
  • Despite the obvious inadequacies of their network, they turned down stimulus funds offered by the Obama administration that could have helped them upgrade it.
  • They've been accused of playing favorites with media streaming.
  • They've dumped Usenet support - and celebrity hacker Kevin Mitnick.
  • And perhaps most damning of all in the land where junk TV is king, they've been accused of playing favorites in American Idol's Kris Allen v. Adam Lambert vote.

And despite all this, AT&T is reportedly seeking an additional year of iPhone exclusivity - a deal that US Interim Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Copps is probing in response to a request by US lawmakers.

Adding MMS on September 25th will solve one image problem, but it may make the overarching challenges of spotty service and corporate overreaching much worse.

On September 26th, we'd be much obliged if you reported in to tell us about the quality of your iPhone service. Thanks. ®

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