iPhone 4 Antenna Controversy

July 2, 2010 - The phone costs more than advertised.

If you haven't heard about the antenna controversy surrounding the new iPhone 4, you probably don't live on planet Earth. I'm a guy who understands the power of the Internet but I'm nonetheless astounded by how fast this thing has developed.

If you're not from Earth, here's the summary. The two antennas, WiFi and cellular, are not inside the iPhone 4. Instead, the iconic steel band around the edge of the phone is split in two parts, each used for one of the antennas. Because touching any antenna with your hand or any part of your body affects its operation, it turns out that the ability of the iPhone 4 to receive its cell signal is degraded depending upon how one holds the phone.

Apple says there is no problem with the phone but the company has promised a fix to the way the five signal bars are calculated and displayed, which it says is an error that is been present in the operating system since the original iPhone.

The lightspeed distribution of this news left no time for experts to take an independent view before the story was widespread. Apparently lawyers operate at faster than light speed because a lawsuit has already been filed against Apple.

There has now been enough time for some experts to weigh in.

  • Spencer Webb, president of AntennaSys, has been widely quoted on this matter and has a good blog post. As of today he has not actually tested the phone. (July 14 Update: Tests.)
  • Steve Gibson, whose opinions and observations are always golden, also blogged. His explanation of how signal bars are presented on cell phones is clear and will surprise you.
  • The AnandTech blog has an authoratative post with excellent details and testing.
  • A YouTube video shows the signal degradation in action.

I have two observations I'd like to throw into this maelstrom.

First, it turns out that adding some kind of case or the Apple iPhone 4 Bumper provides enough distance between the phone and the holder's hand to significantly reduce (but not completely eliminate) the interference. That's why I say the price of the iPhone 4 is higher than advertised because many people will have to buy a case to solve the problem. Apple's Bumper is $30, so I say the minimum cost of an iPhone 4 is $230, not $200.

Second, I am not an iPhone user. The reason is that I switched from AT&T to Verizon about four years ago because I was finally fed up with both coverage and signal strength problems. I gave up rollover minutes to solve signal problems, which should be a good indicator of how bad they were. And it's not just at my home; both my wife and I had problems when we travelled and there were some really bad dead spots around my usual haunts in Towson, MD. No cell service will be perfect, but all our major complaints vanished when we made this switch.

My point is that AT&T continues to have these problems. Read the AnandTech post carefully and you will see that these antenna problems are all on the margin - if signal strength is just a little bit better, holding the iPhone 4 "wrong" will not cause a problem. What this says to me is that AT&T has a lot of customers in that margin, trying to stay connected in places where low signal strength was not previously a problem for an iPhone. Now, with just the small effect of holding the iPhone wrong way, those weaker areas have become more apparent, thus generating a flood of complaints.

My conclusion is that this is probably not as much the fault of the iPhone 4 as it is the AT&T network. With rumors flying that another carrier will be authorized to carry the iPhone, possibly as soon as this year, it's about time for AT&T to get to work.

Tags: Apple, iPhone

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