If you polled a group of iPhone owners on their biggest complaint about the handset, I'd guess that most would name the AT&T service. Yes, spotty coverage and the sometimes abysmal customer service are not to be ignored, but those issues are hardly unique to AT&T. On the other hand, one gripe is very legitimate: the fact that AT&T has a monopoly on Apple's device. It's aggravating and just not fair, they would say, and I have to agree.
A quick look abroad offers a much better model. I recently returned from a fantastic trip to Australia (as if you could have any other) where three carriers offer the iPhone. There you will find it at Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone. I knew this before I arrived in Oz, and it's worth noting that Australia is not the only country to offer the iPhone on multiple carriers, but I had to see just how the services differed.
According to my colleagues at CNET Australia, Telstra offers the best coverage at the highest price. Optus is just the opposite, and Vodafone is in between. The plans did seem to vary, but an unlimited data model was less prevalent. Perhaps that's why I noticed far fewer iPhones in the wild. But even so, the concept of a real customer choice is a great thing.
The reasons for AT&T's dominance here aren't a mystery. Apple doesn't make a CDMA version of the iPhone, and Verizon Wireless passed on the opportunity when Apple was first shopping for carriers. And even though T-Mobile in Europe offers the iPhone, T-Mobile USA isn't quite an option either, mostly because its 3G technology is incompatible. But just the same, it irks me that the home of Apple, and a country with 306 million people (a few more than Australia), restricts iPhone owners to just one provider. Sure, the carrier-driven U.S.market has always been in a class by itself, but that doesn't make it right.