One of the more surprising elements of Apple's iPad launch event was news that the company is sticking with its long-time wireless network partner, AT&T. Was that the right move? Can AT&T handle the iPad in addition to the iPhone?The Internet has its doubts about this one, as do I. AT&T has struggled -- quite publicly -- to manage the iPhone's draw on its network. AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega said that it has seen a 5,000 percent increase in demand for data on its network in the last 18 months (since the iPhone 3G was released).
iPhone users in major cities (especially New York and San Francisco) have experienced lots of connectivity issues. My own personal experience has taught me that the iPhone + AT&T does not make for a great combination. My iPhone was useless during the recent Consumer Electronics Show. If I hadn't carried a spare phone (Droid on Verizon) during the event, I'd have been in big trouble.
Given these experiences, just how well does AT&T think its network is going to hold up if a million or more people buy up 3G-enabled iPads? (By the way, AT&T activated 3.1 million more iPhones in the fourth quarter of 2009.)
Apple, for its part, has defended AT&T. InformationWeek reported earlier this week:
In a conference call with Wall Street analysts on Monday, Timothy Cook, Apple's chief operating officer, acknowledged that AT&T's mobile broadband network is slower than AT&T would like in cities with a high concentration of iPhones, such as New York and San Francisco. AT&T says it is in the process of improving service. "We have very high confidence that they'll make significant progress in fixing them (traffic problems)," Cook said.On the surface, choosing AT&T for its technology alone makes sense. AT&T runs a GSM-based network, which is the most compatible with other worldwide wireless networks. Apple only has to make one 3G version of the iPad to work is most countries around the world. It's interesting, though, that T-Mobile is being excluded here. The iPad has quad-band GSM/EDGE and tri-band HSDPA radios inside. The HSDPA, which will clock in a 7.2Mbps, supports the 850/1900/2100 bands. That means no support for T-Mobile's 3G network. Even if users jailbreak the iPad, they won't be able to use it on T-Mobile's 3G network.
The question is, can AT&T survive the huge surge in network traffic? The company has conceded that there are some weak areas in its network where it offers service below what it (and many customers) think is "average." The company has said that it is working hard to bolster its network to handle the traffic.
In this case, however, I won't believe it until my iPhone stops dropping calls, dropping data sessions, and timing out in attempts to send text/picture messages. If I choose to buy an iPad (and that's a BIG if), I'd skip 3G all together and settle for just Wi-Fi.