There’s an easily misinterpreted map for that

I’ve been meaning to write about Verizon’s “There’s a map for that” commercials since I first saw them, but now that AT&T is suing, this seems like a good time to remedy my oversight.

The issue AT&T has with the maps in this commercial is, in my opinion, a legitimate one: Verizon’s entire network is 3G, so the gaps on the red map really are gaps. But AT&T maintains a large 2G (EDGE) network, in addition to its rather spotty 3G network. So the white parts of the AT&T map don’t necessarily represent dead zones for AT&T customers.

But there’s another issue with this map, and it’s the same problem I have with election result maps: the U.S. population is not evenly distributed across the physical landscape. It certainly looks bad that AT&T offers no 3G service anywhere in the four-state region of Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota. But the collective population of those states is under 3 million — representing about 1% of the total U.S. population — distributed over 393,000 square miles — representing 10.4% of total U.S. land area. That’s less people than in the St. Cloud/Twin Cities/Rochester blob of blue across east-central Minnesota in the map, and it’s far less than the over 4 million people in the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn — an area under 100 square miles.

So, as I’ve said before while studying election maps, the colored areas don’t really tell the true story. Maybe AT&T has a lot of gaps in its map, but there aren’t very many people in those gaps, either.

Now, this is not to go too far in defense of AT&T in this situation. I haven’t had any significant problems with AT&T’s 3G coverage in Minneapolis (although I have noticed my iPhone occasionally dropping down to the EDGE network — a situation that reminds me of Mitch Hedberg’s joke about escalators), but as the Engadget article notes, there are apparently major problems with their network in the most densely-populated areas of the country — San Francisco and New York.

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me in this article, though, is the following claim from AT&T:

Verizon’s misleading advertising tactics appear to be a response to AT&T’s strong leadership in smartphones. We have twice the number of smartphone customers… and we’ve beaten them two quarters in a row on net post-paid subscribers. We also had lower churn — a sign that customers are quite happy with the service they receive.

It’s no secret that much of AT&T’s recent success, especially where smartphones are concerned, is due solely to the iPhone. And it’s also no secret that it’s the iPhone hardware/software combo, not AT&T’s service, that iPhone owners are overwhelmingly satisfied with. Consider AT&T’s exclusive rights to the iPhone, and that pretty much negates any value in AT&T’s claim to customer satisfaction.