AT&T's Donovan: Perception Still 'Lags' on Network Quality

A senior AT&T executive says that there is still a public perception gap regarding the operator's network quality despite AT&T being able to point to strong, independent data on the performance of its 4G LTE offering.

John Donovan, senior executive VP of AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) technology & network operations was asked Wednesday afternoon at the Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. 2013 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference whether "brand lag" was allowing rivals like T-Mobile US Inc. to go after Ma Bell on its network performance.

"There's a lag in perception," Donovan said. Back in 2009, you may remember, AT&T had to admit that parts of its network were "under-performing" in the face of the vast popularity of its iPhone service. (See AT&T Mobile Boss: NYC & San Fran Are 'Underperforming'.)

The operator is apparently still trying to shake off some of that negative perception.

"The first priority for us is the wireless network quality," Donovan had already told the conference attendees and webcast listeners. It is the key objective of Project VIP, which is coming up for its first anniversary. (See AT&T Puts Up $14B to Boost Broadband.)

"The job's never done," he said. "It's a complex technology in the face of an ever-changing demand environment."

To change the perception gap, meanwhile, Donovan says that AT&T started at the company level. "First of all, you have to believe the story yourself," Donovan explained, saying that it has been important to get employees "loud and proud" about the service in the vast number of interactions they have with the public.

The operator, meanwhile, has been taking a data-driven approach to advertising and the media. Hence AT&T's constant referencing of data from RootMetrics that finds it has the fastest LTE network. (See AT&T: Why Our LTE Is Better.)

"I think the data is really working in our favor," says Donovan. Adding that being able to say that it has, for instance, the best performing network in Chicago, has helped with churn. (See AT&T Claims Most Reliable 4G LTE Network.)

Not that the company always gets its messaging pitch-perfect. AT&T is being excoriated today -- the 12th anniversary of 9/11 -- on Twitter and beyond for tweeting an image of an AT&T phone photographing the Tribute in Light beams that commemorate the anniversary of the attacks every year in NYC with the words: "Never forget." The Twitter-verse received this more as marketing than memorial.

AT&T pulled the tweet and apologized soon after.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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milan03 9/13/2013 | 12:24:07 AM
Re: Perception Lag This is absolutely true.

Dan, I don't know if you have an AT&T line in NYC, but I'm still dropping calls, and having terrible HSPA+ data especially in Manhattan during the work days.  Not to mention that AT&T has been severly throttling HSPA data while on a CS voice call, in many cases making it useless for navigation.

LTE deployment did help a bit, but it's not nearly as loaded as Verizon's for instance. It's also going to be interesting to see how's AT&T going to handle a new wave of LTE data hungry iPhones within the next year, especially since they don't have any more greenfield spectrum they could deploy until WCS gets codified here in NYC. Supplemental Qcom spectrum will come, but within a next year or two they would have to start shutting down their HSPA+ carriers in order to make room for more LTE capacity which opens a whole lotta oher issues. 
DanJones 9/12/2013 | 4:43:48 PM
Re: Really! Lets spin some more AT&T Yeah,


Although in a way I think the interesting thing is that he talked about it as much as he did. The questioner asked him about whether "brand lag" was allowing T-Mobile to come after them.(I actually imagine its more T-Mobile's pricing but whatever.)

Donovan could have just said, "Look we're spending $14B" and getting better results in customer satisfaction surveys but he didn't right off the bat, he said he thought there was a "perception gap." and talked about how they were addressing it.

Since, this was a news story and not a blog I reported it straight and added some context as to why people might see AT&T in that light. Just don't see that as spinning for AT&T, sorry.

Carol Wilson 9/12/2013 | 3:49:51 PM
Re: Really! Lets spin some more AT&T Good point, I'm also being raked over the coals for (foolishly) accepting Ericsson's claims of a massive CDN just because it was being deployed in Russia. 
mendyk 9/12/2013 | 3:47:22 PM
Re: Really! Lets spin some more AT&T This excellent post combined with today's kerfuffle (how's that for precious?) regarding Sterling Perrin's 400G post points up why we always need to consider the source(s) regarding service and performance claims. Or politics. Or movie reviews. Or just about anything. Of course, questions about mobile coverage claims aren't new (remember the map spat between VZW and AT&T a few years back?). Truth generally lies (pun intended) somewhere in between.
DanJones 9/12/2013 | 3:46:43 PM
Re: Really! Lets spin some more AT&T Indeed,just meant I listened to some crazy gospel radio on the way. Sounded like the singer was being backed by Deep Purple or something while yelling about a goat tramping down the dirt in a well. Good times!
Carol Wilson 9/12/2013 | 3:13:45 PM
Re: Really! Lets spin some more AT&T Ah, but a drive down from Memphis to New Orleans generally means good live music at both ends of the drive. 
DanJones 9/12/2013 | 2:14:55 PM
Re: Really! Lets spin some more AT&T "My guess on this -- and I'm just guessing -- is that every carrier has major holes in its coverage and your view of the quality of service depends largely on where you live." 

My guess too.

Note that T-Mobile has just bought a raft of spectrum from US Cellular down South. I know EXACTLY why they're doing that. Drive down from Memphis to New Orleans and you're in 2G roaming land with T-Mob.
Carol Wilson 9/12/2013 | 2:05:02 PM
Re: Really! Lets spin some more AT&T I suspect a lot of the rural area data is anecdotal.

So here's my anecdote: In downstate Illinois, outside of Springfield, Verizon's coverage disappears, whereas AT&T and U.S. Cellular (soon to be Sprint) hold up much better. 

My guess on this -- and I'm just guessing -- is that every carrier has major holes in its coverage and your view of the quality of service depends largely on where you live. 

That said, I used to have to carry two devices when I visited NYC because my work device was on AT&T and totally flaked out in the city, whereas my Verizon device worked fine. Now I find the AT&T coverage is much better, due to those investments Donovan cited. 

DanJones 9/12/2013 | 1:51:18 PM
Re: Really! Lets spin some more AT&T Yeah, I can understand that.

Really hard to get data -- other than from users -- when you get out to parts of Idaho, Idiana etc. I only see major urban area figures from a lot of these crowd-sourced network watchers.

Although I still get complaints from friends that there's parts of the hipster capital of the world -- Williamsburg/Greenpoint in Brooklyn -- that have really spotty AT&T coverage, particularly close to the East River. So I'm aware they still have work to do.


tegelad 9/12/2013 | 1:38:28 PM
Re: Really! Lets spin some more AT&T Good :) I like treating potential religious flame areas with humor ....  I don't doubt AT&T has made large strides in improving their network, especially in a 2.5-4x per year growth in data.  I applaude them for pushing hard; however, their approach to network handling is far different then VZW's.

The spin area I view is in their cherry picking approach for doing the data analysis.  A great example is Indiana, where areas where I travel AT&T ignored due to ROI views and left it at a 2.75G play, while VZW (who had no coverage from 2004-2008) came in dropped 3G towers and then in late 2011 early 2012 lit up 4G, while ATT had 2G ... only then did ATT finalize their 3.5G deployment.   Sure they could go in and say we beat VZW with our 4G deployment in the Indy area (where they are actually deemed a monopoly); however, drive 5-10 miles outside of the city you had 3G and 2G service only, while VZW had nearly their entire 3G network as of 2010 covered with 4G .... how is this a fair comparison?

The philisophy that I see is different is that VZW guards the network to ensure fair and fast service for all, while ATT just offers really fast for everything and drops edge users or goes through a denial of service.   E.g. When I am near my house where there is very little competition for 4G (at all) I can get 22Mbps/15MBps with the device, and almost never drop below 7MBps/5MBps, while I am on the road in a real city it is usually in the 7 to 5 MBps range.   When I had ATT devices, I was guaranteed fast service but I would have to restart apps or dial back when needed....

Call me a jaded person; however, I believe as most people have been doing that less talk more action is the most appreciative approach, especially since everyone likes using their smartphones, feature phones, tablets, usb sticks ...  and I have had both and I don't mind forking over the couple extra hundred bucks a month to a company that has provided a tremendous value in reliability and speed ...

But to be extra fair ... I will take a look see at the reports you talk about and see if my observations are un-warranted.

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