AT&T's iPhone Count Down

July 11 is AT&T's D-Day, as the new 3G Apple iPhone will go on sale, drawing hundreds of thousands of shoppers and gawkers to Apple and AT&T stores.

To prepare, AT&T--the exclusive wireless carrier for the iPhone in the U.S.--has created an informational Web site and videos, upgraded its network and hired extra staff. "We are doing everything possible to make customers' purchasing experience quick and convenient," says AT&T spokesman Dan Gugler.

Since many customers are likely to be first-time AT&T subscribers or new to the iPhone, AT&T is trying to educate consumers ahead of the launch. It has posted answers to frequently asked questions, such as whether the phone can be used internationally. It also produced three how-to videos that describe, for instance, how customers who already own iPhones can give their old phones to friends and family if they buy a new one.

On launch day, AT&T stores will open one to two hours early to deal with crowds. Employees will distribute "checklists" outlining the different models, plans and accessories available. "There will be a lot of folks talking to customers, making sure they've thought about what they want to be ordering and what services are best for them," Gugler says. In a nod to the season, employees will also hand out bottled water.

Though Apple kept stores open until midnight last year, AT&T said it hasn't made a decision to extend nighttime hours.

Much has been made over the new iPhone's activation process, which will be done in stores just like other AT&T phones. The previous iPhone could be activated at home by logging on to Apple's iTunes--a system that drastically reduced waiting lines. AT&T hopes the new in-store activations will take between 12 and 15 minutes, on par with its other phones, Gugler says.

Behind the scenes, AT&T has been upgrading its network, in anticipation of an onslaught of new users. Its network currently supports fast, advanced 3G services in 280 markets across the country--a number that will increase to 350 by the year's end and continue to expand in 2009, according to AT&T.

On 3G, content can be downloaded at as fast as 1.7 megabits per second and uploaded at up to 1.2 megabits per second, says Bill Hogg, AT&T's president of wireless network services. AT&T is currently testing software that could increase the speeds up to four times, which the company hopes to make widely available within in the next few months, Hogg says.

The aim is to provide a comparable experience to wi-fi, even for those using bandwidth-heavy applications like interactive gaming or streaming video. "We've gone through and built a profile for what we expect subscribers to use, forecasted that and installed capacity to match," Hogg notes.

If, despite its plans, AT&T sells out of iPhones, as Sprint has with its heavily-publicized iPhone rival, the Samsung Instint, AT&T will let customers pre-pay and put their names on a waiting list.

AT&T confirmed the phone will cost $199 to $299 with two-year contracts, depending on memory capacity. It plans to offer the phones for $599 to $699 without a contract later this year.

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