Reception problems with the iPhone 3G are occurring in towns and cities across the U.S., based on readers' responses this week to CNET News' request for more information about their balky phones.
More information has trickled out this week about the iPhone 3G's reception problems, which are now believed to be the result of a problem with the Infineon chipset inside the unit. Business Week reported Thursday that Apple and Infineon are working on a software fix for the problem, which Apple has yet to officially acknowledge.
But CNET News readers across the country report that many Apple and AT&T customer service representatives are indeed aware of their problems. The iPhone 3G is having trouble connecting and staying connected to 3G networks even in areas that appear to be located within a strong pocket of AT&T's network, as well as on carrier networks around the world. Business Week's sources said that the problems are affecting "2 percent to 3 percent" of iPhone 3G traffic, but there's no official word on just how widespread a problem this is.
A few words of warning before we get into the results: this was not a scientific survey. Apple is believed to have sold about 400,000 iPhone 3Gs in the U.S. as of the first week it was on sale, and has certainly added to that total since. We received input from 334 people over the last four days, both in comments on our site and in e-mail, 312 of whom were iPhone 3G owners and the rest of whom were AT&T customers with other phones.
In the absence of any hard information about what was happening to the iPhone 3G earlier in the week (much more has come out since then), the idea was to try to get a sense of whether the problems were located in a certain region, or whether there was any other kind of pattern. If a disproportionate number of problems were happening in a certain area, for example, that could indicate nothing more than network weirdness.
That wasn't the case: 257 iPhone 3G owners, or 82 percent of all respondents, reported a variety of reception problems, from inconsistent data connections to 3G networks in their area to multiple dropped calls. The problems were reported in 32 states, but seemed to get slightly worse as they traveled west: 37 percent of those experiencing problems lived on the West Coast, mostly in either the San Francisco Bay Area or the Los Angeles area.
It's not surprising that residents of the nation's most populous state would be disproportionately represented among iPhone 3G early adopters, especially given Apple's roots in the Bay Area. But California residents were almost unanimous in their negative experiences with the reception of the iPhone 3G, even in the South Bay area near Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.
"I'd estimate that I see 3G icon on the phone less than 1/3 of the time in so-called 3G areas that I frequent in Bay Area and Austin (Texas)," wrote Marty Faltesek, a resident of Santa Clara, Calif., which borders Cupertino. Only 13 percent of responses from the West Coast were from iPhone 3G owners satisfied with the reception of their unit, the lowest of any region.
Chicago and New York City were two other hot spots of iPhone 3G frustration. Again, big cities are more likely to contain early adopters, but the high ratio of problem iPhone 3G experiences to trouble-free iPhone 3G experiences was noticeable in those cities.
The Northeast in general, on the other hand, recorded the highest percentage of satisfied iPhone 3G users based on the overall responses from that region. We received a total of 61 responses from residents of that region and 23 percent said they were satisfied with the reception of their iPhone 3G. Residents of the Southeast also seemed more satisfied with their reception than the average user.
Owners reported, for the most part, sympathetic if frustrating treatment from representatives at their local Apple and AT&T stores. Many of those who took the time to share extended accounts of their experience said that Apple and AT&T appeared to be aware of widespread issues with the handsets, especially in the week since coverage of the complaints of iPhone 3G owners has expanded.
After advising owners to restore their iPhone 3Gs or turn off the 3G capabilities, Apple and AT&T store employees would in many cases replace the units if customers persisted with their complaints. AT&T customer service representatives tended to point the finger at the iPhone 3G, while Apple representatives tended to blame the reception problems on AT&T's network, as might be expected.
Cory Emmelle of San Diego was told by an AT&T representative that the towers in his area were producing strong signals, and therefore it must be a phone issue. Later on, an Apple representative said that AT&T's network was the problem and advised switching off the 3G capabilities for the time being. Neither company said it was aware of any known issues with the phone.
Andrew Kowalyshyn of Denver, Colo., took his iPhone 3G to the AT&T store where he purchased it after experiencing the reception issues, in hopes of returning it. The AT&T customer service representative advised switching out the SIM card as a possible fix, and said she was aware of issues with the iPhone 3G. After the SIM card replacement didn't solve the problem, AT&T advised him to visit an Apple store.
At his local Apple store, Kowalyshyn encountered one of Apple's "Geniuses" who was sympathetic to his plight, explaining that iPhone 3Gs in use by the store employees were suffering from the same issues and that a replacement unit would likely be just as flawed as his current phone. The employee told him to "sit tight," and that while he wasn't aware of any official fix in the pipeline he was confident that Apple corporate was aware of the issue, given the volume of complaints about the iPhone 3G's reception recorded at that store.
Gordon Goodman, a resident of suburban Chicago, was asked last week to come into his local Apple store to get a replacement unit after a prior service appointment at the store indicated that a new unit would be the best solution to his persistent reception problems. His first attempt to get the SIM card readjusted at an AT&T store--which did clear up the problem for some early reporters of reception problems--failed to solve his issues.
When Goodman arrived at the Apple store for his appointment on Tuesday, he was told that Apple had "changed its policy" since his last visit and was withholding iPhone 3G replacements until a software fix arrived. After complaining to a manager, Goodman was able to get a replacement unit, but the reception issues persisted. On Thursday, he was told by an AT&T customer service representative that its cell towers are having trouble recognizing the iPhone 3G on the network, and that a fix was forthcoming.
As the week closes, it seems iPhone 3G users are closer to a solution to their reception problems. One amazing thing about the responses was how many respondents still loved their iPhone 3Gs, warts and all. After all, the touch-screen interface and navigation features that have made the iPhone a hit weren't affected by this problem.
Apple's reputation for quality software, however, might have suffered. While the reception issues have received a lot of attention--given the fact that many bought the iPhone 3G to use it on 3G networks--reports are cropping up about several bugs in the iPhone 2.0 software that affect the performance of third-party applications, the iPhone's camera, or that result in the newly coined "white Apple logo screen of death."
With a September iPod event likely on the horizon, Apple will have its hands full over the next month getting the iPhone 3G back on track while preparing for the most important part of the year for the company: the holiday shopping season.