The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

« Previous Post | Technology Home | Next Post »

SXSW cellphone service scorecard: AT&T big winner, T-Mobile the loser

March 16, 2010 |  4:19 pm

The South by Southwest Interactive conference draws thousands of geeks every year who converge on Austin, Texas, to discuss technology, the Internet and the next big thing. For attendees, the challenge is to meet interesting people and discover new trends and websites. For cellular carriers, it's keeping their networks alive.

Conference patrons live on the cutting edge. Look around, and you'd have a trying time finding someone whose face isn't buried in a smart phone -- whether "engrossed" in conversation, lounging at a cafe or walking to the next bar.

How are the big four carriers holding up? We took an informal poll of dozens of smart-phone users around downtown Austin and at the festival's epicenter -- the convention center.

AT&T: Still Apple's exclusive U.S. carrier for the iPhone, there's no doubt that the telecom was getting hammered in Austin this week. IPhones are everywhere, as techies send text messages, access Twitter, check into Foursquare and search for barbecue joints on

As the largest carrier of smart phones for years, AT&T has seen what it's like when a ton of them show up in the same city. At last year's SXSW, AT&T's cell service failed in a major way.

This year, however, the telecom was prepared. "We put a lot of effort into preparing our network for the volume of mobile broadband traffic we knew we'd see at SXSW, and we're pleased to see those efforts paying off," AT&T spokeswoman Katie Keating wrote in an e-mail.

The network's voice and 3G Internet channels have been excellent throughout the conference. My iPhone has worked almost flawlessly, and others have reported the same.

Verizon: The nation's largest carrier only recently ramped up its offering of compelling smart phones. The Droid and Droid Eris have only been around for a few months, and the BlackBerry phones it sells pale in comparison to AT&T.

We spotted the occasional Droid around the convention center, and Verizon subscribers say coverage has been great.

Sprint: With the only 4G network in Austin, Sprint was the go-to for many speed-hungry geeks. Although free Wi-Fi was plentiful, some bloggers opted for the MiFi device, which can produce Internet for a computer, phone or iPod Touch practically anywhere. Aside from a few issues in the morning, Sprint users reported solid service.

T-Mobile: Until Tuesday, Google only offered its Nexus One phone for T-Mobile. It's a favorite among many geeks -- though not selling well overall. Those, coupled with plenty of BlackBerries and older Android phones, were clearly too much for the network.

Subscribers in Austin reported spotty service all weekend, culminating in major problems Sunday that made calling almost impossible.

"T-Mobile already has very strong network coverage in the Austin metropolitan area," T-Mobile spokeswoman Krista Berlincourt wrote in an e-mail. Additionally, she noted, the telecom added "several radios" and other enhancements to local sites as well as optimized coverage inside the convention center.

Yeah, but do you really know who you're dealing with here, T-Mobile? These people can't even use the restroom without checking their e-mail.

-- Mark Milian

Photo credit: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times