SlingBox iPhone fiasco shows AT&T's network strains

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Boy, I didn't expect musings on the limits of 3G connectivity to continue for a third day on this blog, but that's the subject at the core of the latest controversy roiling the Apple world. The kerfuffle involves Slingbox, a gadget that's been around for a while and that will essentially redirect your television signal over the Internet to any device that can run a SlingPlayer. (Only one device at a time can access the signal from a given Slingbox, getting around copyright concerns.) The iPhone hasn't been on that list, until now -- but AT&T will only allow you to stream to your iPhone over Wi-Fi, not over cellular signal.

This has led to a wholly predictable round of outrage, much of which has involved the word "crippled," one of my very least favorite words in tech-related discourse. Generally, when someone calls a gadget or program "crippled," they mean "It doesn't have the features I want at the price I want to pay." I also have problems equating being unable to stream mobile video to your iPhone with, say, being unable to walk (call me a PC weenie if you will), but that issue aside, the complaints seem to have a fairly firm grounding in this case, as SlingPlayer on a number of AT&T-supported Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices can stream video over 3G.

Why, then, does AT&T persecute iPhone users? Well, AT&T has never allowed such streaming to computers that are connected to the Internet via 3G, and is now taking the somewhat absurd stance that an iPhone is a computer, as "smartphones like the iPhone to be personal computers in that they have the same hardware and software attributes as PCs." This doesn't make any sense on the surface -- obviously Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices are smartphones too. But from the perspective of the companies that have to support their mobile bandwidth use, an iPhone is more like a PC than a mobile phone, in that its users treat it like a little Internet-capable computer that can make phone calls, rather than as a phone that can surf the Web. (Remember how those iPhone Internet usage stats were all out of proportion to the actual number of iPhones sold?)

This gets to the heart of the unlimited bandwidth paradox. The people who are technically capable of using unlimited bandwidth -- and who are therefore most attracted to it -- are the people who most terrify the very telecom companies that push the unlimited service plans. These discrete bits of news that have come out over the last few days have led me to the conclusion that AT&T was not expecting the iPhone to do as well as it's doing, or for its users to access the Internet radically more often than other smartphone users. As a result, they're getting kind of freaked out about their network capabilities, and a real crisis may be in the offing if they can't invest in their network infrastructure quickly enough. The dropped-call problems that arose when the iPhone 3G first came out were bad, but most people forgave them because it was the iPhone's data capabilities that really drew them to the gadget. If data connectivity starts to fail, then you'll see real outrage.

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