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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What it's like to use the iPhone 3G on Verizon's network

i3g,jpgLast week, when Apple introduced its new iPhone 3GS smartphone, it highlighted by omission what many feel is the product's weakest link - that, in the U.S., it's only available on the AT&T network.

When Apple listed the providers who'd be offering tethering and multimedia messaging when the phone is available on Friday, AT&T was noticeably absent. In fact, when the wireless provider was mentioned during the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, the audience reaction ranged from snickering to outright boos.

Indeed, AT&T is the ubiquitous wireless provider you love to hate. iPhone users complain its data network is slow and congested, that its voice service drops calls frequently, and that its 3G coverage is too limited. As I've written before, I hear all the time from people who wish they could use the iPhone on Verizon, which has a reputation for a speedy, reliable and extensive data network.

Tales of an iPhone on Verizon's network have been around even before the phone was released. Tech legend has it that Apple initially approached Verizon to be the iPhone's exclusive provider, but the carrier turned its nose up at the new device.

So what would an iPhone on Verizon's network be like? Would it be as zippy and reliable at transferring data as iPhone fans hope?

I had a chance last week to find out. Verizon sent me a MiFi 2200, a device made by Novatel that combines a cellular modem with a Wi-Fi router. It connects to Verizon's 3G EVDO network in the same way as the air cards used with personal computers. It then allows up to 5 devices to connect to its 802.11g router. It's tiny - about 2.3-by-3.5 inches and less than half an inch thick - and easily fits in your pocket.


It's a nifty product, particularly for traveling. You can use it to provide everyone in a car with a Wi-Fi connection, turning your vehicle into a 70-mph hotspot.

And that's exactly what I did late last week. We drove to Missouri for my daughter's college orientation, and brought the MiFi along. I used it with my iPhone, and the results were very interesting.

In a major city such as Houston, I found the two networks performed about the same much of the time. AT&T's network could be noticeably slower at peak times, such as during rush hours. But on a Sunday night, when network traffic was light, the two networks performed similarly.

Here's a screen grab from the Speedtest iPhone app from Xtreme Labs. The results on the left are from AT&T; on the right, Verizon. This was typical of what I saw during off hours.

att3goniphone verizononiphone

I didn't take screenshots during peak hours, but performance was often - but not always - noticeably slower on AT&T's network. Verizon's network was predictably fast almost all the time.

The major exception to that was in rural areas. On the way to Missouri, we passed through north Texas and eastern Oklahoma, where AT&T has no 3G, and sometimes even the older EDGE network was nowhere to be found. In some of these areas, Verizon's data network was MIA as well. The MiFi often connected to roaming networks (its power button turns blue to signal this) and data transfers then were as slow as on AT&T's EDGE network.

In other words, forget about smoking marijuana or taking trips on LSD. We don't do wireless broadband outside Muskogee, Okla., USA, either.

Of course, there are many variables here. Using the MiFi, I was going through a Wi-Fi connection to get to Verizon's network, but theoretically the 802.11g protocol has plenty of throughput to handle what's coming from the 3G modem. There could be interference for both Wi-Fi and 3G signals. The number of other users on either 3G network is also a variable.

But overall, performance was more reliable on Verizon's network with the iPhone going through Wi-Fi, than on AT&T's network talking directly to 3G.

Still, I don't think frustrated iPhone users can see a version of their phone on Verizon's network as a panacea. However, the coming of next-generation data networks -- and AT&T's plans to increase the speeds of its current 3G network -- hold out some hope for the future. In the meantime, iPhone users will just have to grit their teeth and bear it.

The MiFi, by the way, sells for $99 online, but requires a two-year service contract for a broadband connection that costs $60 a month with a 5-GB cap. If that's too rich for your blood, there's a $40 a month plan with a measly 250-MB cap. You can also buy it with no contract for $270 and pay $15 for individual day usage. None of those plans, frankly, are a good deal.