Do end users of wireless services really care how their network is performing? Or do they just trust that their service provider will do what they say? Those questions came to mind after listening to AT&T’s John Donovan speak at the MobileBeat event Monday morning, and after reading about some new features that Clearwire has added to its network coverage maps.
Donovan, the chief technical officer for Ma Bell, is usually a straight shooter who doesn’t duck the hard questions. But Monday morning he waffled and whiffed a bit on giving the MobileBeat attendees some hard facts to chew on. When asked what specifically might be causing bottlenecks in AT&T’s wireless networks, Donovan didn’t provide any specific answer but did pledge that AT&T would “move heaven and earth” to stay in front of the growing demand for mobile data.
After his talk, we tried to ask Donovan for some updated statistics on matters like AT&T’s previous pledges to fix its wireless backhaul problems — but Donovan declined to answer, claiming such matters would be discussed on AT&T’s upcoming financial conference call. We’d like to give AT&T and Donovan the benefit of the doubt here, but with recent news about how its main partner Apple’s iPhones don’t accurately display the signal they are supposedly receiving, you would have to put Ma Bell’s credibility at about a one-bar level right now.
Clearwire, on the other hand, has gone in a radically different direction with real-data coverage maps for its nascent national WiMAX network that allow you to drill down to just about view where individual towers are placed. Monday, the Clear blog brought notice to some new features that were recently added to the coverage maps, including a way to view where Sprint’s 3G services are available, as well as where future Clearwire network coverage is scheduled to arrive, both in markets that are already live as well as in markets where service hasn’t yet been launched.
From our perspective, it would seem that wireless customers are better served and can make more-informed decisions when they have more real, hard data about network performance. In AT&T’s case, the company may have the dough to move heaven and earth but they can’t change the laws of physics; Donovan’s slides Monday showed astronomical projected growth for mobile data over the next few years (something we have reported on before), but didn’t address AT&T’s static and somewhat limited spectrum position, or how the company planned to handle all that growth on a network that is currently apparently already busting at the seams.
Make no mistake — we aren’t rooting for AT&T’s failure here. In fact, since the company (as Donovan claimed Monday) carries half the smartphone traffic in the U.S., it behooves us as a nation and as an increasingly mobile economy to hope that AT&T gets it right. But we are also guessing that consumers, investors and developers might feel a lot better if they had some facts to base their faith upon, rather than assurances from a company that hasn’t had a good track record lately in living up to its word.
Maybe we’ll find out if network performance really matters when users get a choice of which network their iPhone can run on. Until then, it’s faith, baby, faith.