Service Outages Still Plague BlackBerry, AT&T

The million-dollar question is how much downtime 8 million BlackBerry users will tolerate.

For companies that pride themselves on service and reliability, AT&T and Research In Motion certainly have had their share of service interruptions, and there seems to be no end in sight.

Yet another data outage Aug. 1, although brief, is reported to have affected numerous BlackBerry users nationwide. According to Brad Mays, a spokesperson for AT&T, headquartered in San Antonio, some of AT&Ts EDGE (Enhanced Data for Global Evolution) wireless data customers around the country experienced difficulty with the wireless data network for a brief period of time. Voice calling was unaffected, and the company quickly identified the cause of the problem and fixed it.

The latest outage follows several over the past few months, including one July 20 in the Northeast, one July 2 in the Midwest and West, and a massive outage in mid-April.

Back in April, both AT&T and RIM put significant effort into fixing the problem. AT&T made about $50 million worth of improvements to its EDGE network, while RIM addressed a myriad of problems with its caching and backup systems. In fact, in an interview with eWEEKs Wayne Rash, RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie indicated at the time that the BlackBerry outage issue had been "unambiguously solved," due in large part to greater fault tolerance.

The million-dollar question seems to be how much downtime the BlackBerrys 8 million users will tolerate. After all, they really dont care whether RIM or AT&T is at fault—they just want their service running consistently. These are mostly corporate users who rely heavily on the service, and they tend to be a vocal group when disgruntled.

"There is no question that BlackBerry users rely heavily on their devices and react almost viscerally when the buzzing e-mail stimulant is removed," said Avi Greengart, principal analyst for mobile devices at Current Analysis. "If one carrier is perceived as being unreliable, it isnt too hard to imagine another carrier capitalizing on that, especially now that the CDMA [Code Division Multiple Access] carriers have multiradio devices like the BlackBerry 8830 [that] can roam on GSM overseas."

/zimages/4/28571.gifRIM is prepping a "virtual BlackBerry" for Windows Mobile devices. Click here to read more.

While corporations that want a BlackBerry solution have no choice but to go to RIM—thereby somewhat insulating the vendor—AT&T is at greater risk of losing business, said Lisa Pierce, a vice president at Forrester Research.

"Its RIMs product. The wireless network is just the delivery mechanism. Ultimately RIM will need to make the call about whether it will stick with AT&T," she said.

Part of that decision probably will be based on how smoothly the carrier transitions to its state-of-the-art UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) third-generation mobile phone technology, slated eventually to replace the companys EDGE network.

"In this day and age, its possible to have totally redundant access, so if [AT&T] wanted to, it could make [EDGE] bulletproof," Pierce said. "But the EDGE network will never be where it needs to be. If AT&T really wants to compete in 3G services, they have to move to UMTS aggressively and make it very reliable."

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