OPINION

Operation Chokehold – AT&T’s New-Media Noose

Does it really matter whether Operation Chokehold shuts down AT&T’s network today? Even if every iPhone user in the country dials up video highlights of “Pirates of Silicon Valley” exactly at noon Pacific time — and somehow the bits keep flowing and the phones keep ringing — it’ll be too late: Operation Chokehold has already put the squeeze on the U.S.’s second-largest wireless carrier.

Our story so far: Newsweek tech columnist Dan Lyons, a.k.a. Fake Steve Jobs – he of the satirical, notorious “Secret Diary of Steve Jobs” blog — issued a digital fatwa for the iPhone faithful earlier this week. Apparently he’s grown weary of AT&T making excuses for the lameness of its network. He’s particularly incensed by a trial balloon floated last week by a company executive who suggested pricing based on customer data usage may be around the corner, all in an attempt to limit iPhone users clogging the network’s tubes with their YouTubes and Pandoras and Last.fm’s.

When you quietly offer that maybe, just maybe, the iPhone’s design may be a factor, as a New York Times tech columnist did last weekend (when he quoted a Nielsen analyst saying so) then Fake Steve goes all Bruce Banner. So Lyons’ alter ego set up Operation Chokehold, a “digital flash mob.” At noon today, every iPhone user is encouraged to touch the icon of their favorite bandwidth-eating app and let it ride for an hour. “We will attempt to overwhelm the AT&T Data Network and bring it to its knees,” wrote Fake Steve, using real hyperbole.

Love the Phone, Hate the Network

As you can imagine with anything Apple-related, this story jumped from tech blog to tech news Web site to mainstream media faster than the Rage virus felled its victims in “28 Days Later.” Fake Steve got a threatening email from a guy who said Operation Chokehold would hurt innocent customers. AT&T told a Mac-centric blog that the idea was “irresponsible and pointless.” The FCC also used the I-word in a statement to ABCNews.com, adding that Chokehold could represent “a significant public safety concern.”

All this from a blog that features a crude drawing of Steve Jobs seated in a lotus position in a cloud of smoke emanating from a bong.

This column isn’t really about Lyons, his joke-turned-real and whether or not he and his fellow iPhone acolytes can really pull this off. It’s more about the media sandbox he’s playing in — and doing so quite well, if my opinion counts for anything. He’s generating traffic, he’s getting people talking, he’s forcing comments and reactions. Nicely played on the new media pitch, and that arena is the point of these sentences. Operation Chokehold doesn’t have to bring down AT&T. That pesky new media, and the company’s tone-deaf responses, have already accomplished that.

Here’s the unscientific, Twitter and Facebook-fueled theme from some of my iPhone-using friends around the country: Love the phone, hate the network. A summer of disappointment regarding an AT&T delay in promised MMS and a still-not-here tethering function for the iPhone has morphed into a winter of discontent. AT&T recently got soaked in a pissing match with Verizon over the latter’s “There’s a Map for That” TV commercials, thanks to a judge. The rebuttal ads aren’t nearly as effective. And now this.

Depending on when you read this, Operation Chokehold may indeed have been the Mother of All Digital Civil Disobedience Events. Or it could have been a flash in the pan.

Oh, that’s right — iPhones don’t support Flash.

The Faces of the iPhone Crowd

It’s painfully obvious that Lyons loves his iPhone and has tapped into his fellow iPhone users’ rage against the AT&T machine. The carrier’s exclusive contract with Apple is entering its third year. How could AT&T not be aware of that kind of device love it has engendered? How could it not support the phone, not build up its network, misread its own customer’s anger?

“What it takes is for someone on the inside to finally identify with the consumer and develop a sense of accountability,” DigitalTrends.com Editor in Chief Scott Steinberg offered to me as a possible solution. “You have to be able in this day and age to deliver on what you promise, and you have to respect the fact that’s it’s a two-way conversation with the customer.

“The reality is that you need to put yourself in the shoes of the customers and understand how something can be perceived, because perception to some extent can matter as much as reality to a fickle user base.”

Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but that user base is loud, proud and occasionally rabid when it comes to all things Apple. It makes you wonder if anybody at AT&T has actually attended or seen video from a Macworld, where the audience gives Steve thunderous applause, cheers any new developments in Mac hardware and software and laughs uproariously at any digs Jobs would aim at Microsoft or other competitors.

Thanks to the Web interactivity aided and abetted by Apple’s products, those users can pass along instant feedback on a variety of subjects, but mostly those having to do with their love for Macs. I mean, AT&T must know that two of the apps featured in the 100,000-strong App Store are for Facebook and Twitter, right?

Right?

Power to the End-Users

“The end-user has more power than every before,” Steinberg said. “People are more cost-conscious and more tech-savvy, and they have more information tools at their disposal, and the ability to connect to other consumers. It’s high time for companies to start listening.”

I’m sorry, I can’t resist: Hey AT&T, can you hear them now?

The New York Times‘ Randall Stross, who wrote the column that Lyons/Fake Steve took issue with, received some flack in the tech blogosphere by citing sources who said AT&T’s network is better than everybody says. Some questioned those sources: One has AT&T for a client, another makes smartphone software that determines network strength but admitted that it didn’t use iPhones for its tests. Valid questions, sure, but Stross actually suggested a nifty solution to AT&T’s woes: Have Apple send its marketing geniuses to the phone company’s headquarters to help tell its story, and have the carrier send some engineers to Cupertino to assist with iPhone design.

Obviously, if AT&T really felt threatened by Operation Chokehold, Lyons would be swimming in subpeonas right now. Despite the FCC’s statement on public safety issues, no one seems to be setting up emergency switching centers for 911 calls. Lyons is catching grief for the idea from some tech columnists who, like his threatening email correspondent, say Chokehold can bring down small businesses who rely on AT&T’s network.

We’ll see about any consequences at high noon PT today. What I do know is that when it comes to AT&T reputation, the damage has already been done.

I’m sure I’ll be checking out what happens. If I’m not around my Powerbook at the time, I’ll just dial up the browser on my Verizon Droid Eris and see what comes from Operation Chokehold.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.

3 Comments

  • I couldn’t care less for issues between elitist iPhone / AT&T contract; my small business runs on AT&T network, and if it suffers today at high Noon be cause of this stupid idea – I’m suing…

    This threat is none less than setting up a bomb somewhere in a building, just to prove that the building won’t resist the explosion…

  • I AM an AT&T technician, sitting in my van as we speak, and can speak to AT&T’s TOTAL lack of respect for the end user as well as their employees. Their management style is iron fisted and uncaring to say the least and that attitude is carried over to the customer. I say full speed ahead to Operation Chokehold, something needs to get their attention. I guess my next question should be: Is Verizon hiring?

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