By Harry McCracken | Sunday, March 15, 2009 at 10:16 pm
I’m having a very good time at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, where most everybody seems to be thoroughly enjoying themselves and the principal complaints seem to involve the weather (which finally cleared up this afternoon) and the quality of AT&T’s wireless service in and around the convention center.
The latter is an significant point, because there are legions of iPhone users here–I wouldn’t be startled if iPhones-per-capacita here are higher than anywhere on the planet, with the possible exception of whatever Zip Code Cupertino is in–and Twitter is as important a communications channel at the show as, well, you know, walking up to people and talking to them. The contrarian in me is not 100% empathetic with the folks here who have been traumatized by spotty service. 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999% of the humans who ever walked the earth managed to fare okay without working iPhones, and multiple issues remain more serious issues for mankind than spotty AT&T service (famine and brain cancer, to name but two). And I got the sense that moaning about AT&T had become trendy here. I saw one guy brandish his iPhone, jab at it with his forefinger, and say something unrepeatable about AT&T’s service. In an elevator.
Still, the fact remains that my own iPhone basically had no working wireless service inside the convention center yesterday afternoon. (I made do with my notebook and its EVDO card, which is on the Verizon network. It was fine.)
This morning, however, I tried my iPhone again, and data service worked, Actually, it worked great–it was snappier than it usually is back home in the Bay Area. I chalked it up to random good fortune–in general, I never know whether my iPhone is going to perform like a champ or fail to connect at all, and I’m never sure whether to blame Apple, AT&T, or both.
Tonight, however, I had a chance to talk with someone with knowledge of AT&T’s response to the SxSW Crisis of 2009. He told me that the company hadn’t anticipated that SxSW would be bursting at the seams with iPhones. (You’d hope that it was aware it’s sold a heck of a lot of iPhones since the last conference, but perhaps SxSW wasn’t on its corporate radar screen, or it didn’t realize that everyone would be Tweeting up such a storm.)
By 5pm yesterday, AT&T realized it had a problem on its hands, and it spent four hours doubling capacity in downtown Austin–something it was planning to do anyhow, but over the course of a few months, not a few hours. It did so not by rolling out portable cell towers (also known as Cells on Wheels, or by the wonderful acronym COW) but by borrowing capacity from other areas that didn’t need it as much–there’s only so much capacity to go around.
The person I spoke with said that the whole experience was a wake-up call for AT&T, and that it plans to monitor tech conferences and other gatherings that are likely to spur heavy use of 3G phones on its network from now on, and plan accordingly.
AT&T’s response didn’t turn every SxSW attendee into a happy camper–over at Cnet, Andrew Mager has blogged about folks who were still disgruntled as of Sunday. But as a guy who knows very little about the nuts and bolts of wireless phone service, it was news to me that a provider could do anything at all to improve the situation in a few hours. I look forward to the day when wireless capacity isn’t stretched thin anywhere. And I’m curious how my iPhone will fare in a couple of weeks when I visit the CTIA Wireless trade show in Las Vegas. It may have somewhat fewer ardent Twitter users than SxSw is seeing this year, but it’s surely be rife with heavy-duty phone users…