Increased Data Plan Prices…for What?

There’s been a lot of mail going back and forth between the Gear Diary Team regarding a couple of recent iPhone posts.  There are some important points that I want to make certain everyone hears before they go off and spend money on a new iPhone 3G. It may not get you as much as you think it might.

According to fellow Team Members Wayne Schulz and Kerry Woo, the lines for the new iPhone 3G are already forming at New York’s flagship 5th Avenue Apple Store.  You can see the post on that, here – Let Freedom Ring (iPhone 3G Style).

I’ve been looking at AT&T’s 3G network lately and wondering why we’re "knee deep in the hoopla."  Apparently my post on AT&T/iPhone US 3G Coverage caused quite the stir over the weekend. It’s gotten some people thinking, but I don’t think that everyone has quite connected all of the dots.  The economy sucks right now folks, and before we go off stimulating other people’s wallets, I wanted to make certain that everyone had as much information as possible. I’m specifically speaking to people who already own iPhones.  Everyone else should listen, especially those non-iPhone users (whether AT&T customers or not) who don’t live in a 3G coverage area.

If you remember the graphic from my AT&T/iPhone US 3G Coverage post, you’ll remember that GPRS/EDGE was noted in either light or dark orange, respectively; and 3G was noted in blue.  It’s an orange colored country, kids.  What other sites said about the article wasn’t quite accurate either. They pointed out that the map I used was a voice plan coverage map and not a data plan coverage map. That part was true; but there’s one point that got somewhat overlooked:

3G coverage is 3G coverage, voice or data…it doesn’t make a difference. 

You’re NOT going to find 3G data coverage in an area that doesn’t have 3G voice coverage and vice-versa: no 3G voice without 3G data as well. Both services run off the same 3G towers.  If you look at the 3G data coverage map and compare it to the 3G voice coverage map, you’ll find their pretty much identical (albeit the data map is a bit harder to read, as the shades of blue tend to run together.

The original 3G Coverage Map from my original post


total-3g data
Compare these two (look for dark blue, directly above). There’s not a lot of difference…


I generated these maps using the publicly available Coverage Map tool that AT&T provides everyone.  It may not have all of the other areas that got covered in their recent 3G build out, but when you look at the bigger picture (how much of the nation truly IS covered by 3G), I don’t think the added areas make that big of a dent (yet), for a couple of very big reasons.

  1. AT&T’s 3G network concentrates on the larger metro areas. If you live in one of those markets, great, you should have wider 3G coverage for your 3G enabled device than you did on 6/29/08. Outside those areas, in big cities where you can lose signals in concrete canyons, or in some suburban areas (i.e. on the fringe), you’re still going to rely on EDGE/GPRS speeds.
  2. People (and mobile devices) are MOBILE. Where and why did this get left behind? Despite the huge rise in gas prices, this is still the summer travel season here in The States. People are going to grab their iPhone and truck it on down the highway. When you get outside of a 3G coverage area, you’re going to revert to EDGE or slower data speeds. What you’re going to find, is that unless you’re in one of the recently expanded markets, or an existing 3G coverage area, you’re stuck with EDGE or slower data speeds.  Personally, I think we’re going to find that that’s the case more often than not, especially if you, like, take your phone with you on a vacation, day trip, or on errands…i.e. you’re mobile with your mobile device.  For example, if I go just 30 minutes west of where I live, I’m outta luck. I’m stuck with (most likely) GPRS only data speeds, and that’s if I’m lucky. You can’t go an hour south of Chicago and carry 3G with you.

So what does the new iPhone offer?  Well there’s the device’s AGPS receiver… Oh! But yeah… did I mention that both Google Maps AND AT&T’s TeleNav service rely on a cellular data connection to send you maps? 

Yeah…Outside of a 3G coverage area, (with AT&T’s TeleNav service) you’re going to see your route line, and TeleNav’s standard logo background in place of map data, as you’re likely moving faster than you can receive map data, at that’s it. A lot of help cellular provided GPS services are at that point. I’ve run into this exact problem when taking day trips both west and north of Chicago recently.

Please don’t get me wrong, kids. I’m NOT panning the iPhone 3G, or AT&T, Apple, or anything right now. I have NOT gotten the new iPhone yet (though I do plan on buying one), so I’m not working from any advanced or privileged information. 

However, I have been working with mobile devices for over 11 years and want everyone to understand exactly what benefits the iPhone 3G is going to provide you. If you live outside a 3G coverage area, live on the fringe of one, or frequently travel outside of one, you get 2 new features with the iPhone 3G (if you exclude 3G from the picture for a sec):

  1. The App Store – You get access to tons of new programs and applications. New functionality is very cool!
  2. GPS – If you don’t have GPS, want GPS, etc. this is a huge addition to any mobile device. You’re going to get both driving and (hopefully) walking directions with this thing. You just need to understand that map data may be spotty while driving in an EDGE/GPRS only covered area, as you’re likely going to be driving faster than AT&T’s data network can send you data on your current geographic position. Don’t be surprised if you get ONLY the blue line of your route (in TeleNav, for example), the triangle that represents you, and an empty background when you’re driving. It’s been happening to me for the past 2 weeks in non-3G covered areas.

So, unless you are a chronic early adopter, or have a real need for GPS, are in a 3G coverage area, and are NOT very mobile, current iPhone owners may want to pass on or wait a bit before taking the iPhone 3G plunge. You may not get a lot, given the Total Cost of Ownership on the new iPhone has increased by $240 over the life of the new, 2 year contract AT&T makes you agree to.

If you are not an iPhone owner or are not an AT&T customer and want to buy your first iPhone (regardless of what price point you buy the device at), take the following into consideration:

  1. 3G Coverage – If you don’t live in a 3G coverage area, 3G isn’t going to come to your area for a while, or you don’t travel to a 3G coverage area often, you have to wonder if the draw for the device (3G speeds and service) is going to make a difference for you.
  2. App Store, GPS, etc. – Will the added extras of the iPhone 3G be of value to you? If you’re not going to add a lot of apps, use GPS often, or aren’t a news/web surfing junkie, you have to ask yourself if the iPhone is really for you. It’s an expensive device for someone who doesn’t need to surf the Internet or get mail on their cell phone.
  3. Storage – The iPhone 3G only comes in 8GB/16GB flavors right now. If you really want to take your music and movies with you, would an iPod Classic or even an iPod Touch offer you a better solution with its larger storage capacities than the iPhone 3G?

Apple is no longer selling the original iPhone, but there are a number of then available on eBay.  My understanding (someone please comment, below if this is incorrect) is that they can still be activated using the original service plan pricing, but I’m not certain how long that will last; or if AT&T will change the rates on you later.

I’d love to hear what everyone’s thoughts are on this. Please join us in the discussion below and tell us what you think…

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