Into the wild

Sparse cellular coverage in the Adirondacks was the final straw in my decision to leave the old pre-Cingular AT&T Wireless network back in 1997 for Verizon Wireless. This past weekend saw me back in the Park, this time with phones from both Verizon and the new, post-Cingular AT&T. This is, needless to say, an iPhone story.

New York's lush Adirondacks, the largest state park in the U.S., includes what must be the largest inhabited expanse of cellular non-coverage in the lower 48. Created by a covenant in the state's constitution, the Park contains hundreds of pre-existing small towns and small commercial enterprises within its 6.1 million acres. The Park's motto, taken from a phrase in the Constitution, is "Forever Wild."

In the late 1990s, my various frustrations with AT&T boiled over when I casually mentioned to a customer service manager that there was still at least one vast tract, right in New York State, not covered by the company's then-new and much-touted nationwide coverage. The manager, consulting a map, said that no such place existed. I, consulting my personal experiences of the prior few weeks, said that there was no signal in Lake Placid, Keene, Keene Valley, Elizabethtown, Lewis, Jay, and presumably all the other towns between, roughly, Lake George Village, Potsdam, and Watertown.

The manager maintained his stance and I decided to take my business to a company that would at least acknowledge the limitations of its network. After all, when would AT&T ever get around to improving coverage if it thought it was already okay?

As it turns out, sometime in the intervening 10 years, it did. And last weekend, armed with my new AT&T iPhone and my one-year-old Verizon Razr, I traveled to those same towns. Both networks still have poor coverage, except in Lake Placid, where AT&T seemed to have the stronger signal, but each was more than adequate. On the other hand, each had a tiny signal at a restaurant in Keene, 15 miles east of Lake Placid. A fellow patron, sitting at the bar, saw me staring at my phone, told me of a parking lot just up the road where I could pull over and get a good connection.

The iPhone, though, has Wi-Fi as well as AT&T's EDGE network. Though it seems odd to imagine the one available without the other, that was true at a campground about 5 miles east of Lake Placid. Someone, perhaps the campground office, had an open Linksys router, even as both cellphones said "No Service" (the iPhone, of course, in stunning color). I attached the iPhone to the Internet via the router. Hopefully, I was drawing from a broadband connection, not slowing down someone's dial-up!

Given the limited connectivity, I haven't used the e-mail on the iPhone very much. Even back in Manhattan, I'm not sure how much I will. It's easy to set up POP accounts, but not so easy to use them, especially if you get a lot of spam. I'm used to killing messages based only on the From and Subject lines, but you have to open a message to delete it on the iPhone, a pointless and tedious process that also forces you to open legitimate messages before I want to. Web mail doesn't have the same problems, and tThe mobile version of Gmail is very nice. But in any event, the iPhone will never replace a Blackberry until it communicates with corporate mail servers better, in particular with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes Server. You need the synchronization that these servers provide.

Even without using e-mail much, the iPhone proved to be a very useful traveling companion, even on a vacation devoted to camping and rock climbing. Google Maps was useful enough several times to nearly justify the purchase on its own. Though you have to be connected to the EDGE network (or a Wi-Fi one) to get directions, the most recent ones stay on the phone. Fresh weather reports are also a godsend for anyone out camping, hiking, and climbing. To call weather in the Daks, as they're called, variable to is an understatement. They're one of those places where if you don't like the weather, you wait a few minutes.

There's one network connectivity issue even more fundamental then EDGE and Wi-Fi: the power grid. On my iPhone's second day I unexpectedly ran down the battery, I believe because I inadvertently left the Wi-Fi running. I had no car charger; the Razr's car charger is USB, but not the same USB the iPhone uses. The Razr's cables have the tiny connector tip that many digital cameras have. The iPhone itself has a proprietary port and, at the other end of its cable, a standard USB at the other end to connect to a computer.

This morning, I notice that XtremeMac has a nice car charger for $19.95 that keeps the USB connector distinct from the cigarette lighter plug, so that you don't need to carry a separate USB cable for synching.

I was never as worried about the health and well-being of my Razr as that of the iPhone. Griffin not only has has a similar charger at the same price, there are cases and other accessories for the iPhone as well.

After about a week, I'm pretty thrilled with the iPhone, but I'm sure it's not for everyone, if only for the price, the AT&T exclusive deal, and the e-mail limitations. For a Mac user like me, though, it's liberating to use the same iCal, the same Addressbook, and the same iTunes as on my computers, and to rapidly synch with all of them and with iPhoto as well.

I had only a little taste of the much-noted activation problems Friday night, as described earlier this week by my colleague Suhas, with whom I waited on line at the Times Square AT&T store. I entered the store about 6:05, as the 13th customer, and left about 6:35. Most of that time was waiting for some database that was overloaded. (I suppose having 12 simultaneous transactions in all 1800 stores is unusual, but it seems like something worth testing.) The credit check done in the store wasn't retained by AT&T's system, so I had to do it all over again at home, a process that took all of about 3 minutes.

My main problem was that I didn't transfer my Verizon phone number. I have some months to go on my contract, and even though the company is being reasonable in pro-rating termination fees, as described by MSNBC here, I still have my daughter, who is on my contract, to consider.

Scaling back the existing contract is still cheaper than terminating it. And if I'm going to continue to pay for the Verizon phone, I might as well have use of it, hence getting a new number for the iPhone. Which, shockingly was simply assigned in iTunes without my having any say in it. The first number was awful. It was so bad I'm not even going to list it here, except the area code, 646, with its ugly and unlucky 4 right in the middle. There were other 4s, and no 8s. Awful. And very unlucky.

So I called AT&T's special number for iPhone support and got some of the politest, friendliest, and most helpful help I've ever gotten from a customer support line. It was so good I had to ask the woman I spoke with if she was with AT&T or with Apple, not that I've ever had so nice an experience even calling Apple. She worked for AT&T. Perhaps they put their best people on the iPhone lines that night.

In any event, she gave me another phone number, in the 917 area code, as I requested. The new number has no 4s, and though she offered me one that had an 8, I like the one I ended up getting even better. Every other number is a 5, which means that every number touches its neighbors, at least diagonally. Before hanging up she mentioned that AT&T normally charges $36 to change a number, but she was able to waive that, presumably because the old one was still warm.

I've hardly given the phone number out as yet, so I haven't gotten to test the visual voicemail that's supposed to be one its main features. But then, the iPhone is so much more than a phone. I've spent much more time listening to music and podcasts, taking and transferring photos, looking up driving directions, and checking the weather than I have making phone calls. And after all, where I was, there really wasn't much cellular service to begin with.

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