Steve Jobs Continues To Answer The Questions That AT&T Won't

During Q&A session after Apple’s press conference on Friday, one of the more interesting things CEO Steve Jobs said was about AT&T. He said that it takes the carrier three years to get approval for a new cell tower in San Francisco. Yes, three years. “That’s the single biggest problem they’re having,” Jobs said.

What’s interesting is that neither Apple nor AT&T have brought this up before. I’ve talked to AT&T on a dozen or so occasions about the horrible service in San Francisco. When I ask why it’s so bad, most of the time I simply get vague statements about how hard AT&T is working on it, and that things will be getting better soon. Soon. This conversation has been going on for three years now.

I’ve never gotten anything from AT&T nearly as specific as the answer Jobs gave in his offhanded remark on Friday. Perhaps that’s because AT&T is scared shitless to say anything even remotely specific about the iPhone, even if it’s about their own network. That’s been my read on AT&T’s responses for these past few years; they’re scared to death of Apple. Even to the point where they wouldn’t defend themselves against allegations that they were the ones behind the Google Voice app block last Summer.

It could also be because it’s better to string people along, telling them that things are always just about to get better, rather than give the reality that a fix is three years out. Had I known from the get go that AT&T would not be able to fix their network for three years in San Francisco, I may not have stuck around.

Of course, the three year statement is an interesting one to make right now. This year marks the three year anniversary of the first iPhone. So if AT&T started asking the city of San Francisco for new tower approvals starting back then, they should be ready to go this Summer. Perhaps that’s why Jobs said earlier this year that he expects AT&T’s service to improve by the end of this Summer.

Of course, the amount of new towers AT&T thought it might need in 2007 is probably far below what they actually need now, in 2010. The iPhone has exploded in popularity since then. And cellular consumption is undoubtedly higher than it ever has been. So a true fix may not be in place until 2011 or 2012. And even then, AT&T may always be one step behind. Well, unless Verizon gets the iPhone and alleviates the strain on AT&T.

Jobs also noted at the press conference that it takes “about three weeks” to add a new cell tower in Texas. Perhaps that’s why AT&T was able to fix the service in Austin, Texas for the SXSW festival this year, but still can’t do anything in San Francisco. Yes, a lot of the Austin fix involved brings in temporary “cows” (basically, mobile cell stations), but they also had temporary antennas put up in downtown.

AT&T just rolled out network upgrades in New York City — a city which, in my experience, actually had worse service than San Francisco previously. But the situation in San Francisco actually seems to be getting worse. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber stopped by our office in the city last week and had this to say: “I’ve been working here at TechCrunch’s SOMA office all afternoon and evening, and I must say, they truly get the shittiest AT&T reception I’ve ever seen, even by San Francisco standards. Place is like a Faraday cage.

We agree. Here’s hoping that any moves AT&T made three years ago come in to place this Summer.

[photo: flickr/ben miller]