There have been many mixed reactions to AT&T 3G coverage in the United States. Separating the rumors from the hype and from the truth can be a daunting task for any cell phone user.
How Important Is 3G?
The term 3G signifies "third generation", and is the label applied to a series of technological advances in the cell phone industry. As defined by the International Telecommunication Union, it is a veritable alphabet soup of protocols and formats designed to carry voice, video, and data over cell phone networks. The technologies include:
Because these technologies vastly increase the abilities of cell phones to carry information, the sooner the cell phone companies could advertise it, the more money they stood to make. AT&T had the additional advantage of a special deal with Apple. Of these, AT&T uses GSM/GPRS/EDGE for its 2G coverage and HSDPA/HSUPA for its 3G coverage.
The iPhone 3G Edge
When the iPhone 3G came out, it gave both the computer and the phone company a large head start over their competitors such as Google, Sprint, Palm, and Motorola. The excellence of Apple's interface and smooth function of the device suddenly enabled people to do things they'd never expected on a device that only tangentially resembled a "phone". At the same time, AT&T was putting together the infrastructure and service to easily carry the data over their network.
The two needed to work together at the right time, because an iPhone isn't very useful if the data takes forever to load, and the data flowing fast would not be very useful if the device wasn't set up to let people easily access it. Apple even named their second and third generation iPhones the "3G" and the "3GS," respectively.
The Pros and Cons of AT&T 3G Coverage
Google and Motorola, along with Sprint and Palm, were not far behind in the smartphone race, releasing phones such as the Droid and the Palm Pre to directly compete with AT&T and Apple. However, none of their devices quite had the panache of Apple's design, and so the competing networks decided to attack AT&T 3G coverage area instead - using the rationale that while 3G is good, it's only good as long as you can access it.
The Map Is Not the Territory
This led to a series of very well-produced commercials showing "maps" of 3G coverage - with Verizon's being much more expansive over the continental United States. The AT&T 3G coverage, as reported by their own company, looked sparse and thin. The company actually sued Verizon over the ads, claiming that they led people to think that there was NO AT&T coverage in the "blank" areas. In reality, AT&T customers could use their phones and even the slower "E" network data in most of the country - but their actual speedy 3G networks were not as robust.
They also were not very reliable, especially in the first year of the service. Dropped calls were very common, and it contributed to the idea that the carrier was unreliable.
Working to Stay on Top
However, by early 2010 AT&T had shored up many of its network's weaknesses. In February's edition of PC World, there was an independent survey of 13 major cities, testing the 3G networks in each; in eleven of them, AT&T 3G coverage was faster and more reliable than any others. In fact, the article noted that the worst coverage was in San Francisco - which is where a great deal of reporting comes from.
Use What Works
As technology grows, the infrastructure can't always keep up, and even as the iPhone 3Gs became the "must-have" phone, rumors of the "4G" network were starting, even as Apple announced a new "iPad" product using 3G. The fact is, the only way to know if the AT&T 3G coverage is adequate in your area is to find people who actually have it and ask them how it works. Everything else is rumor and hype.