Just when iPhone users thought AT&T was going the extra mile to make them happy. The company recently released an app to allow iPhone users to identify dead zones in the carrier’s network. It was a brilliant move to counter the many complaints about subpar service in many parts of the country. So many complaints, in fact, that Verizon based an entire ad campaign around AT&T’s allegedly inferior network. Giving customers the means to report weak network support, right from their iPhones, could have gone a long way to quell at least some of the dissatisfaction felt by many users who only put up with AT&T’s service—or lack thereof—in order to use the iPhone. Launching the app was like saying, “Hey, we know there are problems. Help us identify them so we can fix them for you, huh pal?” Now, just a couple of days after making that app available, AT&T is coming at iPhone users from the other direction, treating them like they’re the cause of AT&T’s spotty service. iPhone users currently make up approximately three percent of AT&T’s customer base. According to company data, that group is responsible for using about 40 percent of the network’s capacity. Yes, those numbers are way out of whack. And now AT&T is admitting there’s a problem, but rather than bulking up the network, investing in its development and expansion to be able to handle the burden placed on it by the iPhone, the company is considering offering “incentives” to iPhone users to get them to reduce their data usage. Incentive is an interesting choice of wording, but we’ll get to that shortly. First, let’s back up for a moment. I’d kind of like to know what AT&T and Apple were thinking when they entered into this exclusive arrangement, making AT&T the only authorized carrier of the iPhone. Apple didn’t develop the device on a whim, and I seriously doubt they didn’t have some idea of how the device would evolve and develop a few years after its initial release. What the company produced is much more than a cell phone, but essentially a hand held computer. Knowing what it was and would be capable of, and having an idea of how customers would use it, why did they choose to partner with a wireless company whose network wasn’t going to be able to handle the data transmission? What’s done is done, and there’s no going back. Apple, as much as they might wish they could, can’t undo the contract they created and go with a company with a wider, more extensive 3G network like, oh, I don’t know, Verizon. No, they have to wait until the current agreement with AT&T expires next year before they can try to correct their error, albeit too late for current iPhone users. So what does AT&T mean by incentives? Well, they haven’t identified that very clearly yet. But what does that word mean? Usually, it means the recipient of that incentive will get something in return for doing something. For example, the incentive for anyone to work is a paycheck. I know, it’s pretty basic, right? But I’m explaining it because I’m not sure AT&T knows the meaning of the word. Apparently, they seem to think incentive is a synonym for ultimatum, because in the same breath that they’re mentioning incentives, they’re talking about a usage-based pricing model. In plain English? Use less data, or pay more money. Right now, iPhone users pay $30 per month for unlimited data usage, that being things like accessing e-mail, surfing and searching the Internet, using apps that require network access, and streaming video and music, just to name a few examples. Now, maybe AT&T and Apple underestimated just how much people would use their iPhones for all these things, but you know what? They shouldn’t have. If traditional Internet use via computer was any indication, as it should have been, both companies should have been prepared for the strain people were going to put on AT&T’s network by trying to use their iPhones the way they use their computers. I mean, isn’t that why Apple created it and built in all that capability? What company creates a device that has so much potential only to hand it over to another company for distribution that is unable to accommodate all that potential? Then again, companies have been doing this for years. Why do American cars’ speedometers go up to 120mph or more when the highest speed limit in the United States is 80? (Don’t go out and get a ticket now. It’s only in certain parts of Texas.) And for AT&T’s part, they should have seen this coming. The iPhone has been out for a couple of years now. What has AT&T been doing? Yes, they’ve been expanding their 3G network, and increasing its speed, but not quickly or widely enough. Sure, expanding a network is expensive. But maybe they could be putting more money toward that expansion instead of an ad campaign in answer to Verizon’s, and instead of filing lawsuits against their competitor for saying all those nasty things about them. How about, instead of buying ads and paying Luke Wilson—who no doubt costs much more than a no-name actor—to say how great they are and how Verizon is a bunch of liars they could, maybe, use that money to actually be great? Am I being too logical here? Now, all that said, charging people for what they use makes perfect sense. I’ve been wishing cable companies would do this for years. Why should I pay the same amount as someone who has their TV on 24/7 when I only watch a couple of hours’ worth a week? The same goes for mobile data. Why should someone who basically uses their iPhone as, well, a phone (although I don’t understand why someone would have one just for that purpose, but to each their own, I guess), pay the same amount for data usage as someone who is constantly using their phone to access video and music, the two things that eat up the most bandwidth? The problem is, AT&T should have imposed a usage-based pricing model from the beginning rather than introducing it as a solution to their lack of network capacity. So get ready, iPhone users. As if your monthly bill weren’t high enough, you may soon have to pay even more. If AT&T goes through with this, it would make sense for them to introduce a lower monthly data cost for those who use it less frequently, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. I can see the base price being kept at $30, and higher prices introduced for heavier users. In the meantime, iPhone users can keep wishing and hoping that either Verizon or T-Mobile will end up with the iPhone next year when AT&T’s contract expires. Let’s also hope whichever company gets it knows what they’re getting into, and plans accordingly.