Chicago (IL) - Many iPhone 3G owners don’t quite experience the twice as fast, half the price cellphone they were promised. Connectivity problems are reported to be impacting the 3G experience, ranging from a weak 3G reception and connectivity, speed declines to EDGE and even dropped calls. Although lots of fingers pointed into AT&Ts direction initially, we are now learning that users in European countries are experiencing similar problems. Some analysts believe that Apple may have programmed the iPhone 3G chipset too conservatively, suggesting that firmware update should fix the issue. However, engineers highlight possible manufacturing problems caused by the substantial manufacturing ramp that reportedly is beyond actual capacity.
A growing number of iPhone 3G users is reporting significant 3G reception and connectivity issues with their handset, such as abruptly dropped calls as well as 3G failures even when the handset is sitting still. These issues are believed to be affecting between 2 and 3% of iPhone traffic, resulting in a 1% rate of dropped calls on AT&T’s network.
Network issue least likely
AT&T’s 3G coverage map suggests that densely populated metropolitan areas, such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, are covered with the strongest 3G signal. But a discussion huge thread on Apple’s support site and other Mac-related forums shows that many iPhone 3G users in metro areas receive only one bar in their signal indicator, while other smartphones receive full signals. AT&T also said it is not aware of any issues with the iPhone 3G or its 3G networks, noting that the wireless coverage depends on users proximity to the access point, materials used in buildings and other factors.
The carrier currently offers 3G in 300 metropolitan areas. The fact that AT&T still does not have nationwide 3G footprint could play into a poor 3G reception. "My belief is that because AT&T’s network is not built out to every cell site, people are getting frustrated, because they’re finding places where the 3G signal isn’t available or is weak," an independent industry analyst Andrew Seybold told Cnet.
Currently, a portion of AT&T’s 3G network uses the 850 MHz band, a frequency that has a greater range and reaches through thicker walls and the carrier said it is upgrading the remaining cell towers to use this band. The 1900 MHz band currently represents the greater part of its 3G network, but these signals do not reach as far and as easily through walls as the 850 MHz band. But since other 3G phones do not have similar reception issues, it seems that it is unlikely that AT&T’s network is causing the iPhone’s problems.
Software issue possible, but unlikely
It’s more probable that the handset itself has hiccups, especially since some users reported better 3G reception when they asked their carrier to replace the handset. The question is whether the issue is software- or hardware-related. If the software is to blame, Apple could fix it with a firmware update. The recently released 2.0.1 firmware update, however, did not fix the 3G issues and it is unknown if the comprehensive 2.1 firmware recently seeded to developers will squash the bug, if it in fact exists.
According to Business Week, Apple believes that the cause of the problem is Infineon’s 3G chip. The company may have programmed the chip to claim a stronger 3G signal than required, resulting in a drop to EDGE speeds when in reality the 3G signal is strong enough to maintain connectivity. Two sources are reporting that Apple will include a fix for the issue with broader firmware update scheduled for the end of September.
A hardware problem ?
Chances are that issues with the circuitry are the root of the problem after all. The iPhone 3G integrates ten different antennas : Three for 850 MHz, 1900 MHz, and 2100 MHz bands used for 3G UMTS/HSDPA, four for 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, and 1900 MHz bands used for GSM/EDGE and a separate antenna for Assisted-GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Multiple antennas on a small surface can interfere, although other smartphones also have to deal with the same problem. And Apple in fact replaced the aluminum casing of the first iPhone with a plastic back cover in the iPhone 3G to improve 3G reception.
Nomura analyst Richard Windsor speculated in a note to clients on Tuesday that an "immature" Infineon chipset could be blamed for sporadic 3G reception issues. "We believe that these issues are typical of an immature chipset and radio protocol stack where we are almost certain Infineon is the 3G supplier," Windsor wrote. He believes that a firmware upgrade is unlikely to fix the issue. iSuppli analyst Francis Sideco believes anything could cause problems, "from the phone’s antenna and amplifier and the radio frequency transceiver to the baseband that processes the digital signal and sends it to the speaker or screen."
A production ramp with hiccups ?
According to an article published in the Swedish engineering weekly Ny Teknik, citing tests conducted by "unnamed experts", 3G reception issues are most likely the result of a hardware problem caused by mass production. Those tests confirmed that some iPhone 3Gs have reception well below the level specified for 3G in Europe by the organization ETSI. Since handset makers have to meet ETSI requirements to obtain the "CE" mark to sell their mobile phones in Europe, 3G reception issues in some iPhone 3Gs are without doubt a case of manufacturing issues.
The paper noted that such issues happened quite a bit in the past with Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson and Nokia. These are "completely normal childhood illnesses," especially in the case of a large volume production. Claes Beckman, professor of microwave technology at the University of Calcutta, said that handset makers can’t avoid such issues, because it would cost considerably more to test every production unit rather than all of its components.
Experts who conducted tests think that manufacturing problems caused the antenna and an amplifier to be aligned incorrectly, which in fact would lead to poor 3G reception and slower 3G data speeds. The error, experts suggest, may have slipped through random screening, because the iPhone’s sealed design makes it impossible to connect the antenna and its inner circuitry to the external monitoring equipment. The increased production pressure on Taiwanese Foxconn Electronics, the iPhone manufacturing contractor, doesn’t help either. Apple recently requested to increase the production capacity to 800,000 units per week or 40 million units annually, well above Foxconn’s capacity.
Apple : Problems ? What Problems ?
J. Gold Associates analyst Jack Gold does not believe that AT&T and Apple do not know what is causing the reception issue and said that he is convinced they are "working hard on the problem." He cautioned that it might not be an easy problem to resolve. "We are dealing with radio waves at a high frequency. Many things could cause these issues," he said in an email interview with TG Daily. "Even people’s sweaty hands could have an effect, or how close they hold the device to their heads, or in what direction they are pointing the phone."
The analyst believes that the antenna design or an issue with the chipset or a combination of the two are most likely to cause the problems, effectively squashing hopes of a simple fix through a firmware update "I’d be surprised if it is as simple as a firmware upgrade, so it is more likely that existing devices will have this defect forever," he said. Gold said that "a relatively small number of troubled and vocal users" elevated the issue to the front pages of media, but noted that the silence from both AT&T and Apple may be causing much more damage for the two companies.
"Companies with problems must clearly acknowledge they have a problem, then tell their customers what they are doing to try and fix it as quickly as possible," he said. "RIM, as an example, learned the hard way that being silent when your customers are having issues (network outage) is not a good strategy."
"Unfortunately, given their history, I am not sure Apple will be as forthcoming as they should be," Gold said.
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