Should you be a stickler for signs astronomical, there are less than two weeks left in summer, which means two weeks for AT&T to deliver on its promise of a “late summer” arrival date for the iPhone’s Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) support. Apple announced the iPhone 3.0 software, which includes support for MMS, at its June Worldwide Developer Conference, but in the list of supporting carriers, AT&T was conspicuously absent.
Why the delay for a feature that most conventional cell phones have had for years? AT&T said in June that it was “finalizing internal system upgrades,” and maintained that the lack of MMS had nothing to do with its 3G network, but a recent report in the New York Times begs to differ.
As many have suspected, the culprit here may be the intersection of the iPhone’s capability and its extreme popularity. The Times says that the average iPhone user can rack up ten times the amount of data usage as an average smartphone owner. In part, that’s due to the iPhone’s built-in functionality, which allows for easy Web browsing, e-mailing, and, of course, the ubiquitous social-network updating. Add in the iPhone’s unlimited data plans, and there’s little reason for owners to cap their usage. All that means an astounding amount of data traversing AT&T’s pipes.
Hence also the delays in MMS and tethering, both features which could potentially eat up a lot more of AT&T’s bandwidth when rolled out to the nine million iPhone customers on the company’s network. AT&T says that it's putting a chunk of money into upgrading its equipment to improve network performance, but with most of those enhancements scheduled to take effect next year, the question is whether it will be too little too late.
iPhone owners have little recourse at the moment, as the handset isn’t available on any other network, but they’ve been making their voices heard for some time now—insomuch as that’s possible when their calls get dropped or text messages don’t get delivered on time.
More worrisome to AT&T, however, will be the backlash from Apple itself, which can’t be happy over the weak link in its shining iPhone future. Rumors abound over the terms of the provider’s exclusive deal with the iPhone maker, but some suggest it could be up as soon as next year. While a wholesale jump to a rival such as Verizon is unlikely at that point, Apple has shown itself willing to make deals with multiple carriers in other countries, which could be a possibility in the U.S. as well. Not only might that make the cell phone market more competitive in the U.S.—which would no doubt interest the FCC—but it also might help distribute the heavy traffic congestion by spreading it among several operators' networks.
If the iPhone has shown anything, it’s that people are clamoring for handheld devices that do more and, as such, it’s only the beginning. With the popularity of Apple’s device and the introduction of comparably powered handsets from competitors like Palm, Google, and BlackBerry, users are only going to be doing more and more with their phones. It seems that the teething pains AT&T is having now may just be the harbinger of the root canal to come.