Why Ford, Microsoft, Pandora Should Hate AT&T


I drove a 2013 Ford Motor Taurus for about 10 days on vacation.

Even though I have been car-less since 2000, I appreciate a good ride. The lady at the counter sold me on a $10 per day upgrade to the Taurus when she said “it’s loaded with the touchscreen and everything.”

Given my line of work, I figured it made sense to have hands-on experience using Ford’s in-auto entertainment system, Sync. The experience would help inform opinions on Ford and its direct partners in the endeavor — namely Microsoft — as well as indirect collaborators, ranging from Pandora to Nokia to AT&T.

It’s a tangled web we do not spend enough time thinking about. We tend to stop at the obvious connection between Ford and Microsoft . The latter’s operating system powers Sync. However, even if they never meet in a boardroom to discuss their connections, dozens of other firms, including the above-mentioned names, have intimate links to and impacts on one another.

How Microsoft pulls off its operating system impacts Ford. But they’re not the only two companies who help create the user experience. The quality of your smartphone, the apps you use and the network you run these things on represent just the beginning of a series of causes and effects that dictate the taste a very good system such as Sync will leave in your — the end user’s — mouth.

Practically every party does its job well vis-à-vis Sync.

Technically and cosmetically, Microsoft and Ford have it right. Sync is easy to use. It’s intuitive. It’s not quite as slick of an experience a Steve Jobs-led Apple would provide, but it’s close enough. After hooking it to Sync, I still have nothing but glowing things to say about my Windows 7.5-powered Nokia Lumia.

My only gripe there: Pandora still does not have an app available for Windows Phone. I can’t figure out why. When I streamed music from my phone, I had to use Spotify, Slacker or iHeart Radio because of Pandora’s absence. Due to this, I ended up using Sirius XM Radio more than any other service. All else equal, I would have probably streamed Pandora every time I was in the car.

But, as is often the case, all else is not equal.

I hate to admit it, but some of the Sirius bulls I spar with from time to time had a point. Actually, I don’t hate to admit it. That’s a force of habit saying. It’s healthy to recognize where you might have been off the mark.

Long story short — the streaming experience via Sync stunk. None of the streaming apps I used during the week and a half I drove the Taurus worked reliably. In fact, the experience was just north of horrendous.

I do not blame Ford, Microsoft, or any of the apps I used for this. They all do a fine job of coming through. In fact, allow me to reiterate how much Sync impressed me. And the alternate streaming audio services I used all performed just as well as my preferred selection, Pandora.

I blame AT&T for my less-than-perfect experience. And companies such as Ford, Microsoft, Pandora , and others should start doing the same. With aggression. The viability of their innovative efforts depends on AT&T providing more than string-tied-to-bean-can level of service.

I gave AT&T the benefit of the doubt. I was in Niagara Falls, N.Y. I ventured into larger Buffalo several times. Maybe I could rarely achieve more than three bars because I was visiting a relative backwater. Maybe I only received 4G LTE service some of the time because of this.

That’s not the case, though. In Manhattan — the hub of the world — my AT&T-powered smartphone worked reliably maybe 25 percent of the time. And that’s being kind.

When I roamed in Canada, however, the Rogers Communications and BCE networks provided near flawless coverage. My family and friends across the country, including the parts of New York State I roll in, have hardly any issues with Verizon Communications and especially Sprint Nextel service.

In Southern California, the same holds true. AT&T tells me that I have towers located within a half block of my house, yet my signal still stinks. Often, my phone will show four or five bars with 4G LTE service when idle. Once a call comes in, however, it dumps the LTE and shows one bar or less, sometimes two on a good day. I can rarely stream consistently from my phone in my home and it’s wholly unreliable on the road.

Based on my admittedly unscientific research, this is an AT&T problem. That makes it a Ford, Microsoft, and Pandora problem. Yet, other than standard consumer complaints (like mine), we do not talk much about it.

This should matter not only to the companies affected, but investors, consumers, and even the federal government. The ability to reliably transmit data, particularly in mobile environments, for both business and pleasure matters to the economy. It’s increasingly becoming our collective livelihood in many regions and spaces.

In fairness, I understand that it’s possible I am not being completely fair to AT&T. This is likely a complex problem that goes beyond my understanding of wireless networks and data transmission. I can be a geek, just not in this particular area. I invite readers to provide an education in the comments.

That said — it doesn’t really matter much if I am being fair or not or if AT&T deserves a tongue-lashing for lackluster service. I might be missing several layers of technical complexity that lets AT&T off of the hook and keeps Ford, Microsoft, and Pandora from hating them.

I’m a consumer. As consumers, we do not think much about technical obstacles when we’re paying a couple hundred bucks a month or more for a collection of things we want to use seamlessly and on-demand. Our response: Figure it out.

That’s what the companies mentioned in this article, their peers and the feds need to do. Step in and demand that AT&T and any other telecommunications company that, all too often, renders a whole host of platforms and applications useless figure it out.

AT&T did not immediately respond to a request for comment by CNBC.com.

—Written by TheStreet.com Contributor Rocco Pendola

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At the time of publication, Rocco Pendola was long Microsoft, Nokia, and Pandora. TheStreet’s editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters, and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.