Verizon IPhone Lets Users Make, Hold Calls: Rich Jaroslovsky

Yes, you can finally make calls on it.

That’s the word millions of Americans have been waiting to hear since Apple Inc. and Verizon Wireless announced that the iPhone 4 was at last coming to the Verizon network. Would it provide a better experience than the version that runs on AT&T Inc.’s rival system?

My early conclusion is, it does. I’ve been using the Verizon iPhone, available today for pre-order and in stores on Feb. 10, for about a week in various locales in Northern California, and it has yet to drop or fail to connect a call. That’s a sharp contrast with my AT&T iPhone, which continues to lose calls regularly.

You have to feel a little sorry for AT&T. When it won exclusive rights to the first iPhone in 2007, there was no way to know how popular it would prove to be -- or how much stress all those bandwidth-munching users would put on its network.

The result has been that many U.S. iPhone buyers have been torn between delight with their cool gadget and a desire to hurl it into New York Harbor, San Francisco Bay or some other handy body of water. And AT&T has become a punchline for comedians, as in Jon Stewart’s recent rant on Comedy Central’s Daily Show.”

No Slam-Dunk

Still, deciding between Verizon and AT&T isn’t a slam-dunk, and current AT&T users who are able to switch shouldn’t automatically do so. The AT&T version is superior in some important respects, and you may have better service where you are than I do where I am. It does mean, though, that current and potential iPhone users in the U.S. finally have a choice. And that’s a very good thing.

The new iPhone is just that: a new iPhone. AT&T and Verizon use different technologies, and a phone that runs on one company’s network can’t run on the other’s. Still, the two handsets have the same dimensions, display and user interface, and the physical differences are minimal. The Verizon version has no SIM-card slot, the black bands in the metal rim that serve as the antenna are in different places and the mute switch is slightly lower -- meaning that some existing cases may not fit right.

The two phones seem comparable in their ability to connect to the Internet over their respective 3G data networks. I found no clear pattern as to which was faster in terms of Google searches, loading Web pages or running applications that access the Net. Using Speedtest.net’s measurement app, sometimes one was faster, sometimes the other. Neither phone is capable of using the new 4G networks that carriers are beginning to roll out across the nation and that promise much faster data speeds.

Personal Hotspot

The Verizon phone offers one useful new feature called Personal Hotspot, which for an extra monthly fee allows you to share the iPhone’s data connection via Wi-Fi with up to five other devices. It’s simpler and more flexible than the so-called tethering function on AT&T iPhones, and I found it to work well with a variety of gadgets, including laptops and an iPad. When other products are sharing the connection, you’ll see a message on the iPhone screen; when they are done using the phone to get online, the Personal Hotspot shuts down to conserve battery life.

There are two significant drawbacks to the Verizon iPhone. One is that, unlike the AT&T version, you can’t talk and access the Internet over the 3G connection at the same time. So you can’t, for instance, check movie times while you’re on a call with a friend.

Don’t Blame IPhone

This isn’t the iPhone’s fault -- it’s a characteristic of the technology Verizon uses, known as CDMA, and it’s the same story on Verizon 3G phones that run Google Inc.’s Android operating system and, later this year, Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Phone 7.

The other drawback is that CDMA, which was developed by Qualcomm Corp., is far less widely used outside the U.S. than is the standard AT&T uses, which is known as GSM. So if you need to use your phone internationally, AT&T may make more sense.

The Verizon iPhone will cost $199.99 with a two-year service contract for a model storing 16 gigabytes of music, movies and data, and $299.99 for 32 gigabytes, which is comparable to what AT&T charges. For now, Verizon will continue to sell an unlimited data plan for the device, but it’s likely to follow AT&T to tiered pricing later this year.

Hopefully, Verizon executives have learned from observing AT&T’s travails, and their network is ready for the onslaught of data-hungry iPhone users. We’ll soon find out. In the meantime, a word to whoever it was in the Apple PR department who called my AT&T iPhone while I was writing this column: Sorry about that. The call failed. Try the Verizon number.

Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in San Francisco at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

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