Can we help AT&T solve its mobile data problem?

by Doc Searls

I'm in midtown Manhattan, connected to the Net over my hotel's slow but costly wi-fi connection. Normally when I'm traveling — at least here in the U.S. — I avoid lame hotel connections by using AT&T's cellular data system, usually through my iPhone's "personal hotspot."

But that doesn't work here, except in the wee hours, I assume because demand on the system is lower. But I don't know. Maybe you do. If so, perhaps this fodder will stoke the problem-solving fires:

PING ( 56 data bytes
64 bytes from icmp_seq=0 ttl=51 time=101.064 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=1 ttl=51 time=92.423 ms
Request timeout for icmp_seq 2
Request timeout for icmp_seq 32
64 bytes from icmp_seq=2 ttl=51 time=31309.253 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=3 ttl=51 time=30364.809 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=5 ttl=51 time=28366.889 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=7 ttl=51 time=26370.460 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=10 ttl=51 time=23369.719 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=12 ttl=51 time=21384.230 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=14 ttl=51 time=19385.376 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=4 ttl=51 time=29390.279 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=6 ttl=51 time=27393.178 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=9 ttl=51 time=24401.894 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=11 ttl=51 time=22405.324 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=13 ttl=51 time=20404.648 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=15 ttl=51 time=18448.794 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=34 ttl=51 time=453.465 ms
Request timeout for icmp_seq 47
Request timeout for icmp_seq 58
64 bytes from icmp_seq=35 ttl=51 time=24054.439 ms
Request timeout for icmp_seq 60
Request timeout for icmp_seq 87
--- ping statistics ---
89 packets transmitted, 17 packets received, 80.9% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 92.423/20452.720/31309.253/10051.146 ms

There are two ways we can go with this information. One is to give crap to AT&T, or to me for using AT&T (and for using an iPhone... I also have an Android, btw & fwiw) — or to the futilities of trying to do anything serious over something so commercial and klugey as a cellular data system. The other is to help AT&T with a problem it clearly has, as technical folk. If we can.

That's the appeal here. What's going wrong? Inadequate provisioning of capacity? Bufferbloat? Something else?

There's another issue I want to explore with this exercise, and that's opening companies to help from the customer/user side. Companies like AT&T aren't set up for that. They're organized to heal themselves from the inside.This excludes more sources of help than it includes, especially when the problems are technical and there are technical people on the outside who have perspective and expertise, and can provide useful assistance.

It's easy to be cynical about the prospects of companies opening up to real outside help. It's harder to try breaking them open. But that's what I'm after in this case.

We've got a lot of technical readers here. Lots of those readers have mobile phones. Probably more than a few have the same problems (and not just with AT&T) that my phone is experiencing here. Why not help out?

Here's another factor to consider: it's still early. We've hardly begun to build out the infrastructure for what Bob Frankston calls "ambient connectivity." Chances are, once we have ambient connectivity, cellular telephony will not be what most of us are using at the lower layers of the stack. But we'll get to ambient connectivity (and nearer milestones) faster, methinks, if we help work kinks out of the systems we do have today, and mobile data over cellular connections is one of those systems.