Sprint Nextel is working with Apple to figure out the connection issue affecting some iPhone 4S devices on its network, but doesn't yet have an answer for the problem.
"We're taking the reports of problems from a small number of customers seriously," Fared Adib, head of product development for Sprint, said in an interview with CNET today. "There's nothing of significance to report yet."
Some Sprint iPhone 4S users have reported suffering dramatically slow connection speeds--an issue that sprung up almost immediately after the device hit stores. The problem remains a top topic on Sprint's support message board, garnering more than 1,200 responses and 235,000 views. Adib said the complaints represent a single-digit percentage of the base of iPhone 4S users on Sprint.
The speed bump has sullied a bit what had been a coup for Sprint. Languishing as a distant third player in the national wireless game, the company got the chance to stand toe to toe with its rivals when Apple announced last month that it too would offer the iPhone 4S and iPhone 4.
"The real issue for Sprint will be how quickly they can repair any perceptions of issues and actual issues," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research. "If there is even the lightest perception of a stumble the market will latch on to it and declare Sprint dead."
Hard to replicate
In the company's first direct acknowledgement of the problem, Adib said he wanted to tackle the issue because he didn't want to create the impression Sprint was dismissing its customers' concerns.
But Sprint is finding it difficult to replicate the circumstances causing the slow connection, complicating efforts to diagnose and fix the problem.
"We don't see anything that is easily replicable," he said.
Sprint hasn't found anything of significance, but Adib said the company would move quickly to alert its customers once a solution is found.
CNET conducted a test of data speeds in select locations in Manhattan and found Sprint had generally performed better than Verizon Wireless's version. The test found no speed issues with the Sprint iPhone 4S, so the problem is by no means universal.
The Next Web reported last week that Sprint and Apple were aware of the connection problem and were attempting to find a fix. It cited an alleged internal memo acknowledging the problem and suggesting the cause may be related to the software.
But Adib said it was too soon to say whether there was an issue with the hardware or software.
The speed problem comes as Apple is wrestling with its own growing criticism over the lackluster battery life on some iPhone 4S devices. Apple is investigating the user complaints, although its continued silence on the matter is threatening to turn it into the next "antennagate."
Regardless, the iPhone 4S has been another hit product for Apple and will almost certainly pay off in customer growth for Sprint. Apple said it sold more than 4 million units over its first weekend. Last week, CEO Dan Hesse said he expects the company to sell more than 1 million iPhones in the fourth quarter, above Wall Street expectations. Striking a confident tone, he said the iPhone has done a better job of attracting new customers than its previous flagship phones, which include the HTC Evo 4G and the Motorola Photon 4G.
Hesse has previously said that the top reason existing customers leave Sprint and new customers choose an alternative carrier is because of the iPhone. He is banking on Apple's blockbuster smartphone to carry the company back to growth on the contract subscriber side this year.
Adib said the early comments from Sprint iPhone users have yielded the highest results for customer satisfaction. It also boasts the lowest return rate.
"People are overjoyed with the product," he said.
It's not just about speed anymore
The slower connection is an interesting turnabout for a company that used to pride itself on being the first to offer 4G services and touted speed as one of its primary selling points. That's fallen by the wayside a bit as its rivals have caught up, and in many cases, surpassed the company.
Sprint iPhone users who were used to the carrier's previous flagship phones were always going to see a drop-off in performance. The iPhone 4S, despite tweaks to its antennas and a faster processor, can only ride on Sprint's slower 3G CDMA network. Customers used to the 4G WiMax speeds found on the Evo or other higher end phones would get a markedly different experience.
That consumers would give up the higher speed for the iPhone underscores its lasting appeal in the face of growing number of viable alternative smartphones.
AT&T is the only carrier able to boast that its iPhone 4S gets an upgrade in connection speed. The company's version of the handset is able to tap into its HSPA+ network, a technology it and T-Mobile USA refer to as 4G. In fact, AT&T has successfully convinced Apple to provide a software update to its iPhone that will allow it to a show a 4G icon by the signal bars.
Lacking AT&T's speed claim or Verizon Wireless's network quality reputation, Sprint has opted to push the unlimited aspect of its data plan.
"People that want an iPhone and an unlimited plan will still consider Sprint," Lopez said. "Many of the users adding these phones won't be smartphone users and won't get a 'speed issue' yet."