AT&T's plans to improve network reliability and what that means for you

AT&T’s Ralph de la Vega announced yesterday that the carrier would start taking steps to improve its network and acknowledged that service in some areas is sub-par (most of you would agree that that’s an understatement). After launching Mark the Spot, an app for the data-hogging iPhone that allows users to report network issues, it looks like AT&T is moving forward with making its user experience smoother and more reliable. De la Vega was pretty optimistic when he said, “In both of those markets, I am very confident that you’re going to see significant progress.” Just how is AT&T going to go about doing that and how will it affect you? Hit the jump to find out.

Improvement Starts At Home

One of the first steps AT&T is going to take is to add 2,000 cell sites to expand its 3G footprint. Simple enough — more towers means more coverage. It will also add 100,000 circuits to strengthen backhaul, which means improved efficiency and speed in transmitting data between you, the user, and the network. But will this be enough to bring its voice and data service to a level where the affected customers are satiated?

Educating Customers and Giving Incentives

Building out a bigger network and improving hardware is going to take time, so AT&T is also going to focus on educating customers on being judicious with their usage. As far as most consumers are concerned, they’re paying over $100 a month to use their iPhones and they should be able to use it as often as they want. They signed up for unlimited data. Why should they restrict music and video streaming or using all the data-intensive apps they paid for? That’s the dilemma AT&T is facing.

Unfortunately, the rest of us know that the network can only handle so many users sucking up bandwidth. According to AT&T, only 3% of smartphone users make up 40% of its total data traffic, and it doesn’t take a genius to guess that those are probably iPhone users. Heavy users coupled with a densely packed population is naturally going to cause network strain, and the quickest fix for that is moderating usage so that power users don’t impede on other paying customers. AT&T does plan on giving power users incentives to consume less data, but we’re not exactly sure what that entails. If you’re consuming more than 5GB of data per month, don’t be surprised if AT&T gives you notice.

Use More, Pay More

If telling the abusers “be fair and share” isn’t enough, de la Vega says they might consider a “pricing scheme” to mitigate usage. While there was no specific mention of data caps or tiered pricing, we can only assume that that’s what he meant. Before flat-rate, all-you-can-eat data plans became popular, AT&T (then Cingular) had tiered packages with MediaNet. Options were limited, many devices didn’t require data plans on sign-up, and not too many people were using their phones beyond email and light browsing. AT&T might bring that idea back with pay-per-byte packages: just like your minutes, if you want to use more, you have to pay more. The worst case scenario is having data caps slapped onto your plan.

The Final Word

The bottom line here is that you will either have to consider new options, whether you limit your usage or use Wi-Fi more often, or face data caps or tiered data pricing. If you think you’ll just jump out of your contract if AT&T hits you with fees or higher prices for abusing its network, think again. The contract you signed when you bought your shiny new phone explicitly states:

Accordingly, AT&T reserves the right to (i) deny, disconnect, modify and/or terminate Service, without notice, to anyone it believes is using the Service in any manner prohibited or whose usage adversely impacts its wireless network or service levels or hinders access to its wireless network, including without limitation, after a significant period of inactivity or after sessions of excessive usage and (ii) otherwise protect its wireless network from harm, compromised capacity or degradation in performance, which may impact legitimate data flows.

If your hours of video streaming is making it impossible for others on the network to get so much as a timely email, AT&T can do what it will with your service without notifying you. So let’s all lighten up on the usage just a hair while AT&T does its thing with network upgrades, and maybe we can make a better user experience for everyone.

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