Hey AT&T: The map is the least of your problems

AT&T's fight with Verizon over its "there's a map for that" ads is missing the point. If she wants any respect, Ma Bell needs to clean up her act

The Verizon and AT&T dustup is turning out to be far more entertaining than any tired old Microsoft vs. Apple campaign. After a series of scorching "there's a map for that" TV ads by Verizon mocking its competitor's spotty 3G coverage, AT&T ran to a federal judge crying "Daddy daddy daddy, that mean old man is making fun of me."

Yesterday the No. 1 cellular company issued a statement on its Web site to "set the record straight on Verizon ads." Among the rebuttals: 75 percent of the U.S. population has access to AT&T's 3G net, and 300 million can log onto its slower EDGE and GPRS offerings (though the site conveniently fails to mention the slower speeds).

[ Apple, AT&T's partner in iPhone, has garnered its share of grievances too. Get a load of Cringely's take on Steve Jobs' empire in "It's Apple's world, we just click in it" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

As GottaBeMobile blogger Warner Crocker notes:

Touting EDGE and GPRS coverage numbers as a part of [AT&T's] strategy is, in my pea brain, akin to advertising Windows by saying you can run a DOS prompt.

AT&T is also demanding that Verizon pull its latest holiday-themed ads featuring elves [video], Elvis ("Blue Christmas"), and the Island of Misfit Toys. That last one is my favorite.

Is Verizon pushing the envelope of truthiness just a bit? Sure -- the iPhone is not a pink-spotted elephant or a jack-in-the-box named Charlie. But so does AT&T's "we've got the fastest 3G network" claim, which obscures its gaps in coverage. As they say, all is fair in love, war, and advertising.

But first, can we all just stop for a moment and agree that AT&T sucks? As an involuntary AT&T customer (I started out with Cingular and had no complaints there) let me assure you: AT&T sucks.

Coverage is abysmal. I watch people all around me chatting on their T-Mobile or Sprint Nextel or Verizon phones when I'm getting zero bars. "Voice quality" is an oxymoron. As for 2G or 3G data speeds, roll the dice and take your chances. Customer service? I'm sorry, I can't talk about that right now, I just ate.

AT&T is the one reason I do not own an iPhone and am not likely to get one.

It's not just me. In survey after survey, AT&T has been kicked to the curb by consumers. The American Consumer Satisfaction Index puts Ma Bell's bastard child a distant fifth (out of six) among wireless carriers. (Verizon tops the list, FYI.) J.D. Power ranks AT&T's call quality dead last. Consumer Reports (available online for subscribers only) also ranks AT&T among the bottom feeders.

Technologizer (and iPhone addict) Harry McCracken describes a typical AT&T experience:

I use an AT&T iPhone a lot in non-descript urban settings around San Francisco (especially in the SOMA neighborhood) and sometimes I can’t get the phone to work reliably at all, let alone at 3G speed. (The lobby of the Courtyard Marriott at Second St. and Folsom is an amazing Bermuda Triangle when it comes to AT&T reception.) There are times when my iPhone’s data connection is delightfully zippy, but there are also times when I identify with the “Blue Christmas” dude.

Really, all AT&T has going for it is its immense size and the iPhone -- otherwise, bupkis. So it has to sue, because lawyers are all it has left to fight with. And that strategy, like most everything AT&T does these days, is turning into a PR disaster.

My advice: If you want people to stop ridiculing you, stop being ridiculous. AT&T needs to forget the map and focus on the territory. In the old pre-breakup days, AT&T was known for impeccable quality and reliability (customer service, not so much). That's what it needs to re-establish. Conquer that territory, and no amount of snarky advertising can harm you.

Can AT&T get back to the glory it once was? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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This story, "Hey AT&T: The map is the least of your problems," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.

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