The Verizon iPhone and why I’m sticking with AT&T… for now

[[A lot of this is stream-of-consciousness and has, as of yet, to be organized into a proper form… expect updates & edits in the next few hours/days….]]

Word of warning: In the article that follows, I will use “GSM” and “CDMA” as descriptors for phones and networks. I realize that AT&T’s 3G network is actually UMTS/HSPA, and Verizon’s 3G network is EV-DO, but since each 3G network is built on a 2G network (and those two network flavors are incompatible) to keep things simple I’ll be using the 2G network’s descriptor when referring to carriers and iPhone flavors. That is all. You may proceed.

Well, it’s finally here. People have been talking about and pining for a fabled Verizon iPhone for years, and today Verizon announced that it will, in fact, be released in early February.

image provided by ArsTechnica

Unlike other Apple announcements (but similar to other times when the iPhone is released for a second carrier in a given market) Steve Jobs was not present. So there were no rainbows, no unicorns, no fuzzy kittens romping and tugging at your heartstrings. Just Apple’s Tim Cook and (Will Farrel as Alex Trebek doppelganger) Dan Dee from Verizon excitedly showing a phone that cosmetically looks the same, and apart from the CDMA radio, possesses all of the same features.

Shortly thereafter my Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with friends and other people’s AT&T breakup notes.

But I’m staying put… for now. And for those dropping AT&T for the Verizon pastures, I bid you fair travels.

My reasoning? One word. CDMA.

The voice/data divide:

The new Verizon iPhone will use the CDMA wireless protocol and will NOT contain an LTE radio. (apparently squeezing an LTE radio in to the current design was a little too challenging for Apple engineers)

Allow me to take a moment to explain the importance of wireless protocols when it comes to actual user functionality…

GSM (the 3G protocol used by AT&T) and CDMA (the 3G protocol used by Verizon) treat the voice/data divide differently. With GSM, both data and voice share the same frequency, and are carried by the same signal, whereas with CDMA voice and data are treated separately and the phone switches frequencies depending on the content being transmitted (whether it be data or voice). This means that when a CDMA device is transmitting voice, it doesn’t transmit data (and vice-versa).

Not to mention that, like other CDMA devices, there’s no SIM card. If you were used to swapping around SIM cards at your leisure, it’s not going to happen here. (but that’s nothing new, I’ve yet to see a CDMA phone with a user-accesible SIM card.)

How do you use your phone? No really, I want to know.

A lot of people don’t realize precisely HOW they’re using their devices, and how they just assume that data is always available.. that the internet is always just a click away on their phone.

There’ve been countless times when I’ve been on a conference call (on my iPhone) and found myself sending the call to the background while I check email.. or look up something on wikipedia… or send a picture over to another person on the call. When the iPhone was first released, Steve Jobs described the iPhone as an “iPod and internet and phone” Notice the “and”s in that description because it’s important. In order to break down the difference between a GSM iPhone and a CDMA iPhone let’s write that descriptive phrase down using boolean logic…

GSM iPhone: (iPod && internet && phone)
CDMA iPhone: (iPod && (internet || phone)

So it’s an “or” instead of an “and”. No biggie. But that’s where the mental clash is going to happen with a lot of the people who have been using iPhones for years. The transition between using voice and using data has become seamless to them (myself included). The first time (and every time) that you try to multitask and use your CDMA iPhone in the same manner, it just won’t do it.

But I want to be able to tether!

A nice feature that Verizon announced for their iPhone is that you’ll be able to (via WiFi) use it as a sort of 3G modem for up to five other devices. It’s a feature that’s existed in iOS (the iPhone operating system) for several years now. (AT&T has yet to allow it for iPhones on their network)
I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to connect my computer to a 3G hotspot, I’d like to maybe be able to receive calls whilst using said computer that’s connected to the hotspot. Alas, that’s not possible with the CDMA iPhone (if you don’t understand why this is, please reread the voice/data divide section above)

But I want to be able to call people!

Then there’s the inevitable “dropped calls” defense. People rejoicing over the Verizon iPhone, saying “I’ll finally be able to use my phone as a phone!”. While I first found it a hard defense to counter, I think I’ve figured out my response.

AT&T saw a 6000x network load increase when the iPhone was brought to market. I’d speculate that a large chunk of that was data, and since with GSM data and voice are carried on the same frequency (as explained above), voice calls would also be affected by this surge in load. Now… if there’s a huge mass-exodus of iPhone users from AT&T to Verizon, AT&T’s network load would be reduced, and (in theory) call reliability would increase. Thus, problem fixed (or at least mitigated).?

CDMA’s segregation of voice and data does actually play into their favor when it comes to handling network load. Verizon says that they’ve performed massive capacity upgrades to their equipment in advance of the iPhone’s rollout. And even if all of the new iPhone users bombard the Verizon network with requests for data, call reliability would be unaffected. The network overload would be limited to the data portion of the spectrum.


So, Nostradamus style, let’s take a look at both networks post-Verizon iPhone rollout:

AT&T: Users are experiencing increased call reliability due to decreased network load. Users are able to both make calls and use data simultaneously. Same experience as before, just better network conditions.

Verizon: Users are experiencing Verizon-grade call reliability, and occasional data slowdowns. Users are unable to use data while on a call, and since this problem is inherent in the design of CDMA, cannot be mitigated with a software or firmware update. Hardware replacement is the only option.

In conclusion…

If you’re already a Verizon customer: rush out and get the phone. I love mine (of the AT&T/GSM flavor). Since you’ve already been living with CDMA, you won’t expect anything more than what the iPhone is capable of delivering on Verizon’s network.
If you’re on AT&T’s (or other GSM provider’s) network: Realize that there IS a difference in experience between the two phones. Look at your own usage habits, and if you feel the functionality tradeoff is worth it, please, I beg of you, stop complaining about AT&T and switch to Verizon already.

Or just wait. Twiddle your thumbs/sit on your hands. The Verizon iPhone is the exact same model that was released to the rest of us AT&T people eight months ago. Are you really going gaga over a nearly year-old piece of engineering? Human years/dog years, human years/smartphone rev cycles same concept. Save your nickels. The 5th-generation iPhone will be announced in a few months, and my money is on it having (amongst other things) an LTE radio. Compatible with both Verizon and AT&T, and without the hiccups of CDMA.

Here’s another author over at TUAW with similar thoughts, just not as verbose: