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As iPhone users bemoan carrier, AT&T fights to improve its image

While the iPhone is often heralded as the "savior" of smartphones, reception of its marriage with U.S. wireless carrier AT&T has been decidedly less positive. As customers' complaints with the network have increased, AT&T, of late, has begun to fight back.

In truth, AT&T has been the proverbial whipping boy in its relationship with Apple. As the iPhone has prospered and continued to gain marketshare, numerous surveys have found the U.S. network to be the device's least-appealing aspect. "It's a P.R. nightmare," Craig Moffett, a senior analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, said in a story in last week's New York Times.

For months, as users have complained of the lack of features or the carrier's service, AT&T has remained relatively silent on the issues. Recently, though, that strategy has changed. Last week alone, the nation's second-largest wireless carrier announced improved 3G coverage, admitted network troubles the aforementioned Times report, released a video explaining the strains iPhone use places on its network, reached an agreement to allow one App Store application to transmit location data without the software running on the iPhone, and announced the long-awaited availability of multimedia messaging on Apple's phone starting Sept. 25. And that was all just in the span of a few days.

"The most important point is, we're listening to all customer feedback, and we’re acting on it," Jamie Carracher, a member of AT&T's Blogger Relations Team, said to AppleInsider when asked about the company's recent approach. "We're planning to invest between $17 billion and $18 billion this year to enhance our wired and wireless networks. We're pushing innovation across the industry to re-invent wireless network standards and equipment to stay ahead of customers' growing and changing use of smartphones and emerging devices."

AT&T has been slow to release features for iPhone users like MMS and tethering because those who use Apple's handset consume a great deal more data than any smartphone before it. Coupled with the astounding popularity of the iPhone, the situation has created network difficulties for the Texas-based wireless carrier, resulting in dropped calls and slower data connections. AT&T's growing pains have been headaches for some customers.

Much of the criticism of AT&T originates online, and particularly from Apple enthusiasts —and even moreso in recent weeks, as the "end of summer" deadline for MMS approached without a word from the company, before last week. The Web's vocal critics are why the company has made a concerted effort to address the concerns of those communities.

Regardless of whether the message AT&T is trying to deliver is being listened to, at the very least it is being received. A new strategy in the company's public relations efforts has come in the form of "Seth the Blogger Guy." Seth Bloom, an AT&T public relations employee, has appeared in a number of videos that aim to answer questions and address concerns that originate online. A three-minute rundown of the AT&T network and MMS availability for the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS has received more than 130,000 views since it was released on Sept. 3.

"Look, we see the discussions on the Web, on blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook," Bloom began his most recent video, "so we thought it would be a good idea to take what's being said head-on."

To that end, AT&T has also set up accounts on Facebook and Twitter to not only announce news, but also dispel false rumors that crop up from time to time.

It's not surprising that AT&T would fight back against bad publicity on the Web. Even Apple, a company notorious for its tight-lipped approach to the press, recently took an alternative, almost grassroots-like approach to sway online opinion as criticism of the App Store swelled. But the volume at which the complaints directed at AT&T have been heard has been so great that the carrier, in recent weeks, directly admitted that at times their service has been substandard. The message the company has attempted to get across has, in effect, been: "We are going to do better."

While places like Facebook may be a way to reach out and communicate with customers, they also offer an outlet for customers to vent their frustrations. Recent posts to the official AT&T Facebook page feature complaints about coverage, data speeds, voicemail, and even Bloom's videos. Some of the items are given direct responses by AT&T officials.

"We've been working hard to foster healthy and ongoing dialogue, especially online where discussions are particularly passionate," Carracher told AppleInsider. "Listening is incredibly important to us. We monitor social media continuously for questions and issues that may affect our customers, and we respond as quickly as we can."

On top of the public relations issues, AT&T has paid numerous other, more literal prices for carrying the iPhone. In addition to the billions of dollars in network improvements planned for the coming years, the carrier also pays a large subsidy on each iPhone sold —an investment that significantly impacted the company's bottom line last quarter.

Time will tell whether AT&T's campaign and ongoing investments prove effective. The company's agreement with the handset maker is set to expire in 2010, though officials are reportedly working to extend that contract through 2011. Some expect that the iPhone could jump to another U.S. carrier, most likely Verizon, within a year. And undoubtedly there are those who might wait for an alternative carrier —but the effect an influx of iPhone customers might have on the performance of another network remains to be seen.

No matter what happens, AT&T hopes it will be able to satisfy its current crop of customers, as it continues to attract new iPhone users. And with its current outreach efforts, the company hopes its customers hear the message it has to share.

"Ultimately, we want customers to understand our strategy and our commitment to honing a new-generation AT&T network that is ready to meet continued growth in data demand, new devices and applications for the years ahead," Carracher said.