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Wondering Out Loud: The AT&T Network

By - February 12, 2009

I love my Blackberry Bold. I’ve had it for two months now and it’s a very good phone. My only gripe is the battery life is a bit sparse, but hey, I’ve had Macs for years, I can live with that. But I have to say, much as I’ve been impressed with the Bold’s speed and features, I’ve been equally unimpressed with the 3G network it came with.

The pitch was that the Bold’s network partner – AT&T – was way faster, allowing me to do stuff like download large files, watch videos, and stream data even while on the phone. In nearly every use case I’ve had so far, I’ve found this not to be the case. Half the time, in fact, I am not even on AT&T’s 3G network, but rather am kicked over to Edge, AT&T’s lower bandwidth older sibling (which is actually more stable, but I digress).

Now my initial reaction to all of this was to complain about how terrible AT&T’s 3G network is, but then again, that complaint is pretty uninteresting – seems everyone complains about their network, right? But a funny thing happened a couple of weeks ago. I found myself at a conference having dinner with a group of colleagues. The fellow next to me had an iPhone on the very same network as me – the AT&T 3G network (in fact, that’s the only network you can get for the iPhone…a fact that makes me suspicious about what was about to happen. But I get ahead of myself….).

The dinner conversation turned to music, and we all got stuck trying to name an 80s soft rock ballad that the restaurant’s rather hapless piano player was busy slaughtering. Someone across the table, who also had an iPhone, loaded up Shazam, an iPhone music app, and pegged the song on the second try (that’s pretty damn cool, but not the point of this story.) Once we had the song, folks started trying to recall the lyrics (thankfully, the piano man was not singing). As the table kept guessing, the fellow next to me was busy on his iPhone. Within about ten seconds, he raised his phone up and silenced the table. There on his screen was a YouTube video of the original singer, belting out the tune.

It was a very cool search-meets-media-meets-popular-culture-meets-dinner-conversation moment, and there’s a ton to be said just about that, but here’s where the story gets irksome, at least to me. “Hey!” I thought to myself as the fellow next to me enjoyed the social capital of being first to find and stream the YouTube video. “I’ve got the cool new Bold, and I have the same 3G network! I wonder if I can do what he just did?”

The answer: A very decided no. It took so long for the video to load I finally just gave up. And no, it was not a javascript, data plan, or browser issue. It was simply speed (at least, that’s how it seemed to me). Meantime, the other guy with an iPhone (Mr. Shazam) replicated my seatmate’s success, streaming the same video on his iPhone within seconds.

I’ve tried now a few times to get YouTube videos to work, in various parts of the country, and I’ve come to a hypothesis: The AT&T network discriminates packets and prioritizes them for iPhones. Am I nuts here, or is something wrong with my phone?

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  • http://www.outridersearch.ca Jeff Lancaster

    It doesn’t seem to be the case up here in Canada.

    My Blackberry Bold on the Rogers 3G network here streams youtube and other videos at the speeds you would expect.

    There is plenty of packet discrimination going on in our market here (that’s another story) but as Canada’s only iPhone network, they don’t seem to be discrimiating between BBs and iPhones. Not yet anyway…

  • http://www.leveragesoftware.com Mike Walsh

    interesting post John. I’m considering a switch from my Blackjack (which I love) to the iPhone (I use a mac) or Bold. I’m reluctant to move to the iPhone because I am convinced that I can’t email and text on that thing, both actions that I frequently perform from my mobile. You may have just tilted my decision to the iPhone, however. I’ll hold off for now, to see what I see here. Thanks for the post.

    @mwalsh

  • http://workstuff.tumblr.com Adam Fields

    I get terrible streaming video performance on my Curve with Verizon in NYC. It’s not just you.

  • http://www.nitinbadjatia.com Nitin Badjatia

    I don’t think your experience is unique, although I think it represents the very poor service that AT&T has on it’s networks. I’m an iPhone user, and I can tell you that I’ve been in similar situations with Bold users, and I’ve gotten the short end of the, er, connection. I never thought I’d say this, but after having AT&T for 6 months now, I wish I were back on my Sprint plan.

    How bad is AT&T’s service? Well, recently I stood in front of One Infinite Loop (Apple’s HQ) and couldn’t get a single bar! That’s in front of the iPhone mothership!! Over the years I’ve used Sprint phones at the same location, and never had a problem.

    This experience is consistent across the US, wherever I’ve been.

  • http://www.brandoneley.com Brandon Eley

    Playing devil’s advocate, have you tried other large downloads or streams? YouTube has a native iPhone application (which is what all YouTube links open in) and plays videos optimized for streaming over the iPhone and AT&T network.

    It’s possible that the Blackberry just downloads a generic mobile version that’s either larger or streamed slower than the iPhone version.

    Of course, I can also see validity in what you’re saying as well. The Apple/AT&T agreement involves a LOT of money, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were catering to iPhone customers in order to keep Apple and iPhone users happy.

  • Brandon

    Sounds like a network neutrality issue, in a different format.

  • http://reverend0.blogspot.com Aaron

    I have noticed similar things. I have had my Blackjack II on the AT&T network prior to the iPhone 3G launch. Prior to that launch I could download and use streaming services. Now, not at all. I am lucky if my exchange email pull doesn’t take 2 minutes for a handful of messages.

  • http://www.sonusnet.com Ben Ortega

    Carriers use partitioning in their networks for handling top paying customers vs. low level payers. Nothing new here.

    RIM/BB probably decided to go with the 4th class transport option vs. 1st class, thus your experience is worse.

    It could also come down to the fact that you bought a crappy phone. yeah I’m an iPhone 2.5G user and I have zero complaints about network availability…well that’s not true..I have no signal at home but my wifi covers me.

    Throw the BB away and get an iPhone.

  • http://twitter.com/tomnocera Tom Nocera

    John,
    A solution to the limitations of the current 3G bandwidth is being implemented by Clearwire. That company, backed by Steve Case, is at work setting up a new 4G network. I understand Clearwire’s 4G network is already up and running in Seattle with other cities to come online soon.

  • Noah

    Wonder what a network speed test at the dinner table would have shown. http://i.dslr.net/iphone_speedtest.html or http://www.dslreports.com/mspeed

    I would also wonder about your comment re: getting kicked off of 3G to go to E. Could be a radio issue in the phone — I’ve heard the old “go to Airplane mode and then back again” trick to re-establish strong connection with 3G network – especially if you’re traveling a lot. Doesn’t seem it should be necessary, but…

  • Bobby

    I’m convinced that Blackberrys just suck. I’ve had a Curve for a couple years-no wifi btw, what’s up with that? and my daughter has had an iPhone 3G for about 4 months and there is absolutely no comparison. The Edge network makes the Blackberry useless, and as far as it goes for a phone it’s aweful. The audio fidelity is almost unusable, not like my daughters iPhone which sounds great, and the network connections is terrible. I can’t wait until our contract resets in April, iPhone for me and no looking back.

  • http://www.pvmediagroup.com Seth

    Streaming video on YouTube works just fine here on AT&T’s 3G arizona network. There is a prompt that it has to switch to WAP for video streaming, however, but downloads in a flash and streams clean the entire time (when 3G network up, as it on occasion goes down for the whole southwest, yet another story). That said, believe iPhone has YouTube app which is optimized for AT&T network and YouTube and probably can’t hurt and can only help as far as rapid delivery is concerned.

  • SW

    There are a number of explanations, traffic shaping not the most likely in my opinion.

    The different devices could well be using different protocols and bit rates, but differences in client application implementations (either the YT app on the device or even the video codec) or the network stack on the device can result in huge differences in performance.

    Compare the speed various platforms can request and display a complex web page (iphone vs S60 vs Android) for a similar examples.

    There are many options for device optimisations, most devices are pretty poor.

  • karun

    With the iPhone, Apple released a couple of firmware upgrades to improve network performance – it was all tied to how the device network stack interacted with the ATT network.

    Check for firmware upgrades for your Blackberry – also they may have a new youtube viewer app which improves video download performance.

  • http://www.programmerhelper.com/ Programmer Helper

    Prior to that launch I could download and use streaming services. Now, not at all. I am lucky if my exchange email pull doesn’t take 2 minutes for a handful of messages.

  • Pat Daddona

    I just uploaded my one and only Youtube performance onto my LG. Not the most exciting phone around but on 3G and the video and sound are quite good. Go figure!

  • Andrew

    I agree with the “blackberrys are slow” sentiment. I use mine with the Sprint 3G network in the south bay, and on the phone it’s barely usable. I more frequently use my blackberry in tethering mode, connecting my computer to the internet via bluetooth to the blackberry.

    In that mode, the speeds are great.

    The phone makes a big difference.