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Tuesday, March 30, 2010, 06:10 pm PT (09:10 pm ET)

Apple tweaked iPhones to lessen strain on AT&T network - report

A new report profiling the troubles AT&T has faced with millions of bandwidth hungry iPhone users revealed Tuesday that Apple has modified its handset to make it less taxing on its wireless partner's network.

Talking to The Wall Street Journal, AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan said he and other executives flew to Apple's Cupertino, Calif., campus to give the handset maker a "crash course in wireless networking." With regular return meetings at Apple, AT&T employees helped the iPhone designers create new technologies to limit the strain on the wireless provider.

"Apple rejiggered how its phones communicate with AT&T's towers," the report said. "As a result, the phones now put less of a load on the network for such simple tasks as finding the closest tower or checking for available text messages."

Donovan told the Journal that Apple's designers are now "in a Master's class" on networking, having learned the basics and worked with AT&T to improve the iPhone dramatically. Exactly what changes were made, and whether they were hardware or software based, was not revealed.

The article also revealed that AT&T executives set up a 100-day play in December of 2009 to improve the company's network in large cities where users most commonly experience dropped calls. At least one study found that the company's efforts have paid off: A performance test released in February found that AT&T's 3G network speeds had improved by 84 percent.

But the Journal also noted Tuesday that AT&T is still "racing" to improve its network as Apple is rumored to be working on a CDMA capable iPhone that could be headed to the Verizon network as soon as this year.

In January, Apple executives made a clear effort to demonstrate they are happy with their partnership with AT&T. The company also aimed to downplay speculation that the iPhone would become available on multiple carriers in the U.S. Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook said multi-carrier strategies are not the best option for every country.

AT&T's exclusive mobile partnership with Apple is expected to end this year, with many observers expecting the company to begin working with Verizon Wireless and/or perhaps T-Mobile, either of which would require new iPhone hardware designed for those company's mobile networks.

AT&T itself has regularly announced mobile infrastructure progress and future plans to improve and expand its mobile network in the US in order to better support new and existing iPhone users. The company also announced last week that its 3G MicroCell hardware would see a nationwide rollout beginning in mid-April. The service offers relief from cell phone "dead zones" by acting as a 3G receiver when hooked up to a broadband Internet connection.

AT&T has also met competitive price cuts set by rivals. The companies have also engaged in their own advertising campaigns which have been highly critical of the other.