As recently as this week, AT&T has been sending marketing text messages to its customers, notifying them when new cellular towers are installed in an area to boost reception. The company has been attempting to combat months of bad publicity that has centered on criticism of its network's performance since the launch of the iPhone 3GS.
But as AT&T has touted itself as having the fastest 3G network in America, executives with the company have also warned that mobile data hogs could have a higher monthly bill at some point in the future. The carrier has said that 40 percent of its network capacity is used by just 3 percent of smartphone users.
AT&T's perceived "threats" towards bandwidth-heavy users inspired Dan Lyons, under the guise of his comedic Fake Steve Jobs persona, to promote an "attack" on the AT&T network this week. Dubbed "Operation Chokehold," the coordinated effort suggested by Lyons asked users to run bandwidth intensive applications on their phone at a specific time, in order to "overwhelm the AT&T data network and bring it to its knees."
The story gained some traction this week, and resurfaced once again days later after AT&T officials publicly commented on Lyons' satirical blog post. In an official comment to Cult of Mac, an AT&T spokesperson said:
"We understand that fakesteve.net is primarily a satirical forum, but there is nothing amusing about advocating that customers attempt to deliberately degrade service on a network that provides critical communications services for more than 80 million customers. We know that the vast majority of customers will see this action for what it is: an irresponsible and pointless scheme to draw attention to a blog."
Since AT&T made its public response, the number of Facebook fans for "Operation Chokehold" has grown significantly, from about 300 on Tuesday to more than 1,700 Wednesday afternoon.
The episode is another example of an item of bad publicity for AT&T steadily gaining traction. The wireless carrier has fought back in recent months with its own aggressive public relations campaign to convince its customers that it is working to improve its network. As Verizon eventually began lampooning AT&T with its "There's a map for that" ads, AT&T hired actor Luke Wilson to "set the record straight" on its network coverage.
This year AT&T said it will have invested between $17 billion and $18 billion in its wired and wireless networks. Among those upgrades are new cell towers intended to boost reception. Further down the road, the carrier expects to have its high-speed HSPA 7.2 upgrade completed in 2011.
One noteworthy exception to the bad publicity came on Saturday, when an article in The New York Times attempted to state that the iPhone hardware itself is the cause of dropped calls and spotty reception. AT&T is afraid to criticize Apple, author Randall Stross argued, so the company remains silent. However, the article was widely criticized for quoting the president of a network testing service that is a client of AT&T.
AT&T's recent tough talk on bandwidth use was portrayed last week as an attempt by the carrier to regain control of its wireless customers. iSuppli Corp said that services like iTunes and the App Store and their connectivity with the iPhone have made customers more tied to Apple than AT&T. Wireless carriers would like to regain that control from their subscribers, the analysis said.