Why you should stick with AT&T if you have an iPhone

It was just announced that Apple will finally port the iPhone over to Verizon’s network early next year. The conventional wisdom being that AT&T is an incompetent foil to Apple’s engineering genius, the only thing holding back the iPhone from true greatness, virtually everybody I know with an iPhone (and many waiting) say that they can’t wait until they can get a Verizon iPhone.

Let me pour a little rain on this parade. I’m tempted to say nothing (and let’s be honest, writing on this blog is pretty close to doing just that) because I’d love to have everybody run away to Verizon to clog up their network while those of us staying with AT&T enjoy the highest speeds we’ve ever seen. However, I suspect anybody moving from AT&T to Verizon will be sorely disappointed, for a few reasons.

First, it’s now widely acknowledged that the reception problems with the iPhone 3G, and to some extent the iPhone 4, are entirely the fault of Apple. It’s pretty clear from comparisons with AT&T network performance on other brands of phones versus the iPhone that Apple had a lot of learning to do about writing baseband wireless software. Apparently making a good cell phone is more than just sourcing a few million chips from Infineon and then treating the rest of the phone like a small laptop. Apple was way behind on the RF engineering needed to make a reliable cell phone. Even now, this is evident in the poor (albeit improved) performance of the iPhone 4, which can’t seem to figure out how to keep connected to a good signal and requires frequent cycling of the wireless chip to maintain a good connection. So, unless you live in an area just not well-served by AT&T, you will likely find slower speeds on Verizon. While Verizon does cover more physical space with their network, AT&T’s network is provably faster where it actually exists.

The above brings me to the second point: if Apple had a bit of a learning curve to figuring out how to write firmware for a GSM phone, it stands to reason they might have a few initial hiccups with a CDMA phone. Verizon’s network operates on a fundamentally different standard than AT&T’s, and Apple will be using wireless chips from a different company (Qualcomm) in their Verizon-compatible phones going forward. Given Apple’s propensity to punish the hell out of early adopters, and having paid my dues in that regard, I have no intention of seeing how they manage to screw up connectivity to Verizon’s network.

Finally, if the problem really is, to some extent, AT&T being overloaded by iPhone users, it would seem to me that the last thing you want to do is be part of the stampede over to Verizon. Just as things are finally speeding up for us sticking with AT&T, the poor existing Verizon folks will be waiting to check their e-mail as millions of iPhone users clog their networks. Verizon’s network may be the biggest, but my guess is that users in major cities will find out that biggest and fastest are two completely different things.

You can send me my check now, AT&T.