Relief Is on the Way for Bay Area AT&T Customers

Long suffering AT&T wireless customers in the San Francisco Bay area, including legions of iPhone users, are going to get some badly needed relief this fall. The company plans a major network upgrade in the region that should help eliminate dead spots and areas of poor coverage, reduce dropped calls, and, especially, improve coverage inside buildings.

I am convinced a lot of the bad rap AT&T gets among iPhone users (see, for example, the comments on my colleague Arik Hesseldahl’s post) is the result of serious coverage problems in the Bay area, which, of course, is chock full of tech opinion leaders of all sorts.

By the end of the year, company officials say, AT&T plans to turn on 3G service on its 850 MHz network in the Bay area. Based on my experience as an AT&T customer in the Washington, D.C., area, where 850 MHz 3G was lit up last year, this is likely to produce dramatic improvements in service. In Washington and up the coast to Boston, AT&T coverage may be on average a bit worse than Verizon Wireless’, but only a bit.

Why it has taken AT&T so long to fix San Francisco remains a mystery. I've spent a lot of time in the Bay area over the past few weeks and came to realize just how bad things were. For example, when I was out there just last week for Apple's Worldwide Developers' Conference, I discovered that my data coverage dropped to GPRS--the wireless equivalent of slow dial-up--while riding in a cab on the Bayshore Freeway (101) about a mile from San Francisco International Airport.

Spectrum in the 800 MHz band is a legacy of the analog cell service set up in the 1980s. Back then, the government gave spectrum--it hadn't discovered there was a lot of money to be made by selling it--to two carriers in each market. In northern California, the original carriers were PacTel Cellular and GTE Mobilenet. Although AT&T ended up acquiring the parent of PacTel and Verizon bought GTE, a complex series of transactions resulted in each owning the others wireless spectrum.

AT&T and Verizon both run service in two bands--1900 MHz, plus 800 MHz for Verizon and 850 MHz for AT&T. When Verizon began offering its EV-DO 3G data service, it did so at both 1900 and 800. But AT&T, whose migration to 3G was more complicated because of both business and technical issues, has been very slow to bring up 3G at 850.

Adding 850 will have two big advantages for customers. First, it means there's a lot more bandwidth available. Second, the ability of radio waves to penetrate obstacles such as concrete and steel buildings is inversely proportional to the frequency, so the lower frequency spectrum should offer much better in-building coverage.

AT&T expects the 850 MHz "overlay" to begin in the fall and be completed by yearend.

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