Inside the iPhone 3G dropped call complaints

Posted:
in iPhone edited January 2014
Experts and analysts of all stripes are trying to explain what's wrong with the iPhone 3G, but their answers are frequently supported by bad science, outlandish claims, and pure speculation. Here's what's wrong in the reports, and why a simple firmware update is likely to solve the current issues.



What's the problem?



While nobody has formally studied the problem, lots of iPhone 3G users are complaining that they can't find 3G service, can't maintain 3G service in areas where other 3G phones can, witness wildly fluctuating signal strength bars on the phone, or conversely can't use 3G because it consumes battery life too rapidly.



Many articles on the subject are referencing Apple's support forums, where some discussions have gotten so long that forum moderators have had to lock the original thread and create a new overflow discussion.



Clearly, there are real problems. How widespread and common those problems are is more difficult to pinpoint. Apple said it sold a million iPhone 3G units on its opening weekend, and Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster reported that each of the company's US retail stores are now selling an average of 95 iPhone 3G sales per day. He expects the company to sell 4.47 million this quarter. That indicates that well over two million iPhone 3G units have already been sold to users.



Even if the 3G issues were only affecting one percent of the phones sold, that would leave twenty thousand users with problems. If only a tenth of those users posted comments online, that would easily account for the two thousand messages on Apple's discussion boards.



Blame the provider?



In the US, AT&T has been fingered in the iPhone 3G's reception problems due to the telco's relatively new and limited service coverage of its 3G network. Even in urban areas where AT&T's service maps indicate there should be 3G service, the iPhone 3G frequently fails to find it or maintain a strong enough signal to complete a call.



Compared to Sprint and Verizon Wireless, which both have wider 3G service coverage in their more mature 3G EVDO networks, AT&T is building out its 3G network using UMTS, a worldwide standard. AT&T is also forced to use different radio frequencies than other UMTS providers, which results in less technical maturity for AT&T's 3G network than those overseas.



AT&T primarily uses the 1900MHz band in the US, but is working to expand its use of its 850MHz band, a lower frequency that allows radio signals to spread farther and penetrate walls easier. Europe uses the even higher 2100MHz band for 3G, but there is also more dense network coverage there.



While AT&T's network is still experiencing some growing pains, the iPhone 3G's reception issues are also being reported in other countries too, even in Europe where 3G UMTS networks have been built out for some time. In those locations, the iPhone's dual band 3G radio uses the standard UMTS frequencies, making it hard to blame AT&T for more than just its limited coverage.



Dropped calls by provider



An article on the iPhone 3G by BusinessWeek cited unnamed sources to report, "the problem is affecting 2% to 3% of iPhone traffic, the people say. That compares with a dropped-call rate of around 1% for all traffic for AT&T." A source for the dropped call rate at AT&T wasn't given.



Studies on dropped calls are difficult because users don't report their dropped calls, and providers would be challenged to know whether phones on their networks ended a call on purpose or not. Further, calls may be dropped for a number of reasons, from poor service coverage or intermittent signal interference to phone set problems to users walking into a elevator or bank vault.



A study on dropped calls published by mindWireless in February 2007 ranked US providers on dropped calls by analyzing 80 million calls on 130,000 wireless accounts over a the first six months of 2006. It defined a dropped call as any two calls placed to the same destination within two minutes, without a call in the middle. This would not identify dropped calls where the user did not call their party back immediately, or where they were called back by the dropped party. It also excluded voicemail calls.



The company reported that Sprint had a dropped call rate of 5.4%, AT&T Wireless 5.7%, Verizon 8.0%, Cingular 11.3%, T-Mobile as 13.8, and Nextel at 14.6% (not including push to talk calls). AT&T Wireless was bought by Cingular in 2004, but the company was still in the process of merging its networks when the study was underway; that merger combined the GSM towers operated by both, strengthening Cingular's signal. Over the next year, Cingular subsequently rebranded itself as AT&T. Sprint has also since merged with Nextel, although those two companies operated incompatible networks (CDMA and iDEN) that couldn't help each other in terms of signal.



Those numbers indicate that the reported "2 to 3%" dropped call rate on the iPhone 3G, as well as the 1% drop rate for "all traffic on AT&T" are not likely to be anywhere close to reality. They are also not the product of any scientific study, since the iPhone 3G as only been out for a month and during that time the firmware has been updated.



Incidentally, Sprint and AT&T began fighting over the ad line "fewest dropped calls" last year, and AT&T was separately sued by subscribers over its claim as false advertising. AT&T no longer makes that claim, but now advertises "more bars in more places." That promise hasn't solved iPhone 3G reception issues however.



Blame the components?



Nomura analyst Richard Windsor kicked off the iPhone 3G panic when he published a research note suggesting that the iPhone's problems were due to a faulty industrial design using Infineon chips, and suggested that Apple might have to recall the faulty units.



The problem is that Windsor isn't a technical expert; he's a financial analyst. More problematically, this isn't the first time he's described a speculative hardware problem and sounded a false alarm for a possible recall based upon erroneous guesswork. Last year, he claimed that the original iPhone was plagued a faulty design for a film on its screen that used "a chemical deposition to provide touch sensitivity based on heat."



Windsor wrote that the design had failed in earlier attempts to make it work after just a few months, and suggested Apple might have to accommodate a massive recall after iPhones suddenly stopped working in the first three to six months. That never happened, but more importantly the iPhone also never used a heat sensitive film. It has always used an entirely different multitouch technology based on sensing capacitance that lays under the iPhone's glass screen, not on top of it.



The chips used in the iPhone 3G are similarly not unique nor the likely subject of a massive recall. Guenther Gaugler of Infineon told BusinessWeek, "Our 3G chips are, for example, used in Samsung handsets and we are not aware of such problems there."



Blame the production?



Some have blamed Apple's phone manufacturing instead. NyTeknik ("New Technology"), a Swedish publication, said that problems associated with the iPhone 3G may be due to problems in high production manufacturing, and notes that similar "normal childhood illnesses" have affected phones from Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson and Nokia.



Testing each iPhone during manufacturing would cost more than its actual components cost, according to Claes Beckman, a professor of microwave technology at the University of Gävle. The site performed its own testing on an iPhone 3G and found results for nominal sensitivity of 3G radio signals that were below the minimums set by the ETSI standards body. However, it also noted the iPhone 3G design has passed the CE mark, which means that it originally met the ETSI standards in testing. This led the group to believe that the problems cropped up in manufacturing after production accelerated.



Users reporting problems with their iPhones have been asked by Apple to provide their "build week," represented in the fourth and fifth digits of the unit's serial number. This could mean that Apple is tracking problems with phones manufactured between specific dates; the company has been swapping out phones for users with complaints.



The number of faulty devices may fluctuate slightly during manufacturing, but there is yet no clear suggestion that problems have accelerated with new production. Some users report having exchanged out several new iPhones without seeing any difference in exchanged models between different build weeks.



Blame the firmware?



The two sources cited by BusinessWeek indicated confidence that Apple would be able to address reception issues in the upcoming iPhone 2.1 software update, expected next month in September. Earlier in the month, Apple released 2.0.1, a bug fix that also included updates to the iPhone 3G's baseband firmware. That update had some impact on the signal strength display that users were seeing, but no details were provided on what the release actually fixed.



Earlier this year, Apple released a 1.1.4 update which also addressed a problem with dropped calls that some users were experiencing at the time on the original GSM iPhone. It too was only described as being a bug fix without offering any specifics. The iPhone 3G's UMTS technology is more computationally complex than the original iPhone's GSM radio. While its chipsets are also used in phones by other makers, the firmware Apple is using to drive the its hardware is unique and has plenty of room for maturity and optimization.



The good news is that Apple is selling millions of iPhone 3G units all of the same design; other manufacturers, such as Motorola, Samsung, HTC, and others not only sell fewer smartphones than Apple but also offer a range of different models, ensuring that each model gets less focus. All of Apple's attention is going into optimizing the iPhone 3G. RIM, which sold twice as many smartphones as Apple last fall, and Nokia, which sold just over 8 times as many, similarly split their development resources across a wide number of different models.



Credit iPhone 2.1?



When it arrives, the iPhone 2.1 software is expected to combine firmware optimizations with higher level software updates, including tools to enable developers to work with more accurate GPS data for turn-by-turn directions, as well as the notifications system for third party apps that Apple described at WWDC. The notification feature was reported missing from the fourth iPhone 2.1 beta released to certain iPhone developers just days ago.



Features are frequently added or removed during beta build testing, but the removal of the notifications system from the 2.1 build may relate to an effort to deliver its anticipated low level firmware updates as soon as possible and perhaps sooner than planned, leaving the notification service to be distributed as part of a separate release.



Apple has not publicly connected the notification system with the iPhone 2.1 release; it delivered the details of both under a non disclosure agreement intended to prevent speculation and panic as changes occur in its deployment schedule.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 86
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    Clearly, there's real problems.



    Clearly, there are real problems.
  • Reply 2 of 86
    so glad I'm out of it.



    Funnily enough with my new handset I live in a 3g area whereas before (iphone 3g) I wasn't.
  • Reply 3 of 86
    I commend you on an excellent article. This is really what the world needs to hear. Of course, since the iPhone gets a ton of press, everyone jumps on every little thing. I completely agree with all of your comments. Sure, there may be problems with the iPhone, but they're getting blown way out of proportion.



    Joe
  • Reply 4 of 86
    Nice article! I for one have had ZERO problems including 3G connectivity. I was 20th in line on the 11th though.
  • Reply 5 of 86
    The dropped calls are not accidental. Apple has developed advanced heuristic, AI algorithms that determine when your calls have become tiresome, boring, tedious, redundant, repetitive, redundant and repetitive, and puts these calls out of their misery.



    It's not a bug -- it's a feature!
  • Reply 6 of 86
    I was in Manhattan yesterday, and the drops in data accessibility were quite annoying.



    I hope for everyone's sake that this is an issue which can be fixed by a software/firmware patch.
  • Reply 7 of 86
    jsonjson Posts: 54member
    Comparing my iPhone 3G to my work phone, a SonyEricsson K610i, I find that in my office the 610 gives me three out of five on the 3G signal strength meter while the iPhone only connects to the GSM network (both in the same spot in the room).



    I know which one I'd rather use though..... but even so I hope there is a fix coming.
  • Reply 8 of 86
    dm3dm3 Posts: 147member
    Good article.

    I don't have any reception issues. I've tested with a Motorola RAZR2 V9 and a Nokia 6085. Reception is similar and even better in some cases on the iPhone 3G vs. the others.



    Good to see someone challenge some of the fud. I'm tired of seeing reception threads which instantly degenerate into Apple bashing. 5000 posts bashing Apple for anything and everything doesn't prove a reception issue.



    That said, its probably a combination of all the options. There probably is not a single problem but a number of issues.



    It is likely that some phones have manufacturing defects. Any product does.



    It is a certainty that improvements can be made to the software.



    AT&T is certainly the cause for many of the problems. AT&T just shows 3G coverage, but they don't show how strong the signal is supposed to be. They're trying to make it sound better than it is. Its just plain bad coverage. Our v9 also jumps from 5 bars to no service and exhibits lots of bad behavior including dropped calls.
  • Reply 9 of 86
    It is interesting that the article ends with a discussion on the improvements we might expect in the 2.1 iPhone software upgrade and that it might fix some of the issues....



    How many times on these forums have we all made fun of M$ releasing under-tested/buggy products and letting their customers do the beta testing for them then fixing it after the fact... is it coincidence or irony that Apple appears to be doing the same? (or at least we are giving them the benefit that they can)
  • Reply 10 of 86
    pg4gpg4g Posts: 383member
    Letting you guys know... the dropped calls have been fixed in the latest beta 2.1. A friend of mine showed me as he updated his iPhone and in the same location the bars went from 1 bar of 3G to 5 bars of 3G. He says he was shocked how in areas it would struggle to find 3G before, now its consistently strong.
  • Reply 11 of 86
    rickagrickag Posts: 1,626member
    Thank you Prince McLean for this article. Well balanced and informative.
  • Reply 12 of 86
    sapporobabysapporobaby Posts: 1,079member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    The good news is that Apple is selling millions of iPhone 3G units all of the same design; other manufacturers, such as Motorola, Samsung, HTC, and others not only sell fewer smartphones than Apple but also offer a range of different models, ensuring that each model gets less focus. All of Apple's attention is going into optimizing the iPhone 3G. RIM, which sold twice as many smartphones as Apple last fall, and Nokia, which sold just over 8 times as many, similarly split their development resources across a wide number of different models.




    Well duh!!! Apple only sells one phone. Such rocket science. How many resources would you say RIM, Nokia, et al dedicate to each respective model?
  • Reply 13 of 86
    ktappektappe Posts: 753member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Quake97 View Post


    Sure, there may be problems with the iPhone, but they're getting blown way out of proportion.



    It's not "way out of proportion" if you're one of the ones who's experiencing problems. I've experienced the dropped calls myself, in an area AT&T maps show as fully 3G-saturated. And it wasn't just one drop, it was four during a single 20-minute conversation. And I wasn't walking into an elevator, I was sitting in my living room. So this problem very much is real, no matter how much you don't want to believe it is.
  • Reply 14 of 86
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by ktappe View Post


    It's not "way out of proportion" if you're one of the ones who's experiencing problems. I've experienced the dropped calls myself, in an area AT&T maps show as fully 3G-saturated. And it wasn't just one drop, it was four during a single 20-minute conversation. And I wasn't walking into an elevator, I was sitting in my living room. So this problem very much is real, no matter how much you don't want to believe it is.



    Didn't you hear:
    Quote:

    The good news is that Apple is selling millions of iPhone 3G units







    Don't worry. Be happy.
  • Reply 15 of 86
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by PG4G View Post


    Letting you guys know... the dropped calls have been fixed in the latest beta 2.1. A friend of mine showed me as he updated his iPhone and in the same location the bars went from 1 bar of 3G to 5 bars of 3G. He says he was shocked how in areas it would struggle to find 3G before, now its consistently strong.



    Man I hope you are telling the truth! That would just be off the hook awesome.
  • Reply 16 of 86
    Although this report is fairly well thought out I have two concerns:



    1) The dropped call report cited was referring to calls made in the first half of 2006, not on 3G networks, and more than 2 years ago, before many 3G networks were firmly in place and may actually have little or no application here.



    2) I have a 1st gen phone and my reception has become worse since the 2.x software release. I am experiencing the same behaviors I saw prior to release 1.1.4. Therefore I agree that the issue is likely software. Unfortunately, there has been little discussion of the reception issues of 1st gen iPhones which may mean it affects only a few users.



    --Chris
  • Reply 17 of 86
    pg4gpg4g Posts: 383member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by mutant View Post


    Man I hope you are telling the truth! That would just be off the hook awesome.



    I am telling the truth, and I am currently holding my iPhone in that very same location, my lounge room.



    It used to drop to GPRS depending where i was in my room. I now currently cannot lose 5 bars of 3G (i am in australia, so I don't have edge access) and I was shocked.



    I had a trip around the city on the sunday, (my friend installed it on my phone after his) and wow... in places where it dropped to gprs continuously, it wouldn't go below 3 bars 3G.



    The connection is unbelievably strong with this beta.
  • Reply 18 of 86
    pmjoepmjoe Posts: 565member
    I haven't had any dropped calls, though my calls tend to be short and there probably isn't much to the 3G network in my area.



    I am having significant problems with the Mail application. It seems to get into a state where for POP mail, it will no longer attempt to get mail (even if I manually request it, I assume that's what the circular arrow at the lower left is for) unless I fully power off the iPhone and restart.
  • Reply 19 of 86
    richlrichl Posts: 2,213member
    Quote:

    While nobody has formally studied the problem



    Quote:

    The [Univesity of Calcutta] performed its own testing on an iPhone 3G and found results for nominal sensitivity of 3G radio signals that were below the minimums set by the ETSI standards body.



    Sounds like someone has formally studied the problem and found the answer. I wonder if Apple ramped down the power at the last minute in order to conserve battery life?
  • Reply 20 of 86
    irnchrizirnchriz Posts: 1,564member
    Quote:

    'Studies on dropped calls are difficult because users don't report their dropped calls, and providers would be challenged to know whether phones on their networks ended a call on purpose or not.'



    Network's do know when calls are 'dropped' and not the user or third party ending the call. in the UK Orange credits one minute of call time back if you call the third party back



    Its part of their 'network performance promise' LINK



    'This means we can commit to our Network Performance Promise*: if we do drop a call, we’ll credit up to one minute back to your account if it’s redialled within five minutes. Here are the finer details;

    call the same number back within five minutes, and before calling anyone else, and we'll credit your account

    redialled calls must last longer than three seconds for credit to be added

    calls to fixed charge numbers, like Directory Enquiries, will be credited as a call at your standard rate

    calls lost by a third party don't qualify for credit

    * Our network promise doesn't apply to international calls, calls made whilst abroad or free phone 0800 numbers'



    Maybe At&t should adopt this policy?
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