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Study shows steady decline in AT&T brand perception

Since the launch of the iPhone 3GS, public perception of AT&T has progressively decreased, while opinions about competitor Verizon Wireless remained relatively unchanged, a new study shows.

In a daily survey of 5,000 people 18 and older, YouGov's BrandIndex tracks companies based on factors of quality, value, satisfaction, recommendation, reputation and impression. When combining those categories, AT&T's index score of 18.3 on June 16 had eroded to a 14.6 on Thursday — a change company senior vice president Ted Marzilli told AppleInsider is "statistically significant."

He said the survey could indicate that some people may pause before they buy an iPhone because they don't want to be locked into an AT&T contract. Though he believes the contract between AT&T and Apple has likely been beneficial to both parties for the last two years, the timing of AT&T's public perception decline suggests the issue can be traced to the launch of the iPhone 3GS — or, more specifically, the network's inability to meet the bandwidth needs of users with the device.

"It may be hindering iPhone adoption at this point," Marzilli said, "and I think Apple is going to take a hard look at what they will do next."

AT&T has always been perceived as an inferior brand to Verizon Wireless in the index rankings. However, it was in mid-June that the gap between the two companies began to widen. Though AT&T's 14.6 score in overall feedback remains relatively positive, it still lags behind well behind Verizon in consumer perception. In the last three months, AT&T's biggest hits came in the quality and recommendation rankings.

"AT&T can come out with its initiatves and its announcements, but the problem is people on the Web are starting to blog about their problems with the AT&T network," Marzilli said. "It's a bit of a snowball effect."

While the study found AT&T's score to consistently drop over the last three months, Verizon has stayed much the same as it was in January. Its Sept. 10 score was 21.2. Scores can range from 100 to -100. A score of zero would mean equal positive and negative feedback.

The BrandIndex rankings sample a representative portion of the U.S. population. The company said it conducts more than 1.2 million interviews per year from an online panel of more than one million individuals. The company said its survey's margin of error is +/- 2 percent.

AT&T has had its share of troubles with the iPhone's bandwidth use on its network, going as far in recent weeks as to publicly admit its own shortcomings. With the exclusive contract between AT&T and Apple for the iPhone set to expire in 2010, some have speculated that the device will become available on other carriers. However, others believe it would be beneficial for the handset maker to extend its current contract.

In recent weeks, AT&T has begun its own aggressive public relations campaign to combat bad press and Internet buzz that has plagued the wireless carrier since the launch of the iPhone 3GS this summer. The company also announced improved coverage in the Tri-State Region and revealed plans to build nearly 1,900 new cell towers in the U.S. this year. The company plans to invest more than $17 billion this year to enhance its wired and wireless networks.

Because BrandIndex checks daily, Marzilli said AT&T's recent efforts might show up in rankings in the next few weeks. Whether public relations alone, though, can overcome AT&T's network troubles remains to be seen.

"The real issue for AT&T is how quickly can they alleviate the problem," he said. "It's interesting news that they're investing billions of dollars, but what does that mean for me as an AT&T customer over the next month, three months, six months?"