There’s No Place Like Philadelphia for iPhone Users

Unlike Silicon Valley and New York City, AT&T is bragging about network satisfaction in Philadelphia

Since launching three years ago, the iPhone has undeniably altered the mobile market.

The iconic device changed the way manufacturers design and price mobile phones. It introduced mobile data consumption to the masses. And it’s been a testament to Apple’s ability to capture and reshape markets, like it once did with the iPod portable music player and like it’s trying to do once again with the recent launch of the iPad tablet computer. [SIGNUP]

Yet in the wake of Apple’s success, the smart phone’s pivitol backbone, AT&T, the wireless network on which the device exclusively relies to deliver data, has been on the receiving end of much criticism for dropped calls and data dead-spots. In a report released in October, half of loyal iPhone enthusiasts surveyed said that they’d leave AT&T for another network if given the chance.

It’s likely true that the carrier was unprepared for the onslaught of mobile data usage that erupted on the network. AT&T says that data usage — surfing the Web, streaming music and video and checking the latest sports scores — has increased 5,000 percent in the last three years. That has left it scrambling to invest in network infrastructure. In Pennsylvania alone, AT&T has pumped $720 million into its network since the launch of the iPhone.

But as we’ve thought often and as a regional AT&T executive is quick to point out, much of the criticism is coming from San Francisco and New York, where tech media outlets thrive and where smart phone users are more prevalent, hence, the network’s more strained. So, what about here in Philadelphia?

Dan Lanfond, vice president and general manager for AT&T in central and eastern Pennsylvania, says Philadelphia is doing just fine. “I want to brag a little bit about how well this market is doing,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “New York City is performing much better, the investments came quickly, which helps me down the road. We learn from them. That’s the benefit of being right next to them.”

We, of course, take Lafond’s bragging rights with a heavy dose of salt. But anecdotally, we’ve heard often that using an iPhone in Philly is a dream compared to the Big Apple. This isn’t the first time that it’s been recognized that AT&T’s massive network investment may be paying off. In February, PCWorld tests indicated that AT&T network download speeds had improved 72 percent since last spring.

And Lafond says that in the region the wireless carrier’s churn rate, which gauges how many customers are leaving for other carriers, is 20 to 25 percent better than the national rate of 1.19 percent. “You know the competitiveness in Philadelphia. Everyone that wants to play in wireless is here. For us to be that much better in Philadelphia is pretty sweet,” he said.

That success puts AT&T on track — at least in Philadelphia — for a solid roll-out of Apple’s next iPhone, due this summer, a prototype of which recently leaked to the blogosphere.

The ultimate test for the carrier, though, won’t be in network stability. No, that test will come when, not if, Verizon Wireless launches its own iPhone. Then, you can be sure, AT&T’s bragging rights will be harder to come by. — Brian James Kirk

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