Dec. 16, 2009— -- It may have started as a joke, but now a stunt urging iPhone users to take down AT&T's wireless network has drawn the attention of federal regulators -- who condemn the digital protest as "irresponsible."
On Monday, Newsweek reporter Daniel Lyons, who writes the popular blog, "The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs," posted a satirical memo encouraging iPhone owners to participate in "Operation Chokehold."
Writing as "Fake Steve," he told iPhone users to voice their dissatisfaction with the performance of AT&T's wireless network by running the phone's most data-intensive applications at the same time -- 3 p.m. ET Friday. That, he said, would "overwhelm the AT&T data network and bring it to its knees."
"Send the message to AT&T that we are sick of their substandard network and sick of their abusive comments," Lyons wrote. "The idea is we'll create a digital flash mob."
The spoof campaign has quickly taken on a life of its own, as blogs and Twitter users have spread the word. A Facebook group even counts more than 1,900 people as fans of "Operation Chokehold."
But today the FCC caught wind of the protest and said the protest could be a threat to public safety, blocking AT&T users who might need to call 911.
"Threats of this nature are serious and we caution the public to use common sense and good judgment when accessing the Internet from their commercial mobile devices," Jamie Barnett, chief of FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau, said in a statement. "To purposely try to disrupt or negatively impact a network with ill-intent is irresponsible and presents a significant public safety concern."
Many owners of Apple's iPhone -- which is only available with AT&T data and voice plans -- have become annoyed with dropped calls and slow data speeds, which they blame on inadequacies in AT&T's network.
Lyons posted his "memo" after recent comments from an AT&T executive revealed that the company is considering incentives to keep so-called "bandwidth hogs" from jamming the network with video and other data-hungry applications.
'Fake Steve': iPhone Users Feel Powerless
"There's real anger about AT&T," Lyons told ABCNews.com. He said the executive's "mealy-mouthing" about incentives for people to use less bandwidth pushed already-disgruntled iPhone owners over the edge.
"I was really taken aback by the response," he said. But it appears he struck a nerve among iPhone users who believe AT&T isn't delivering on its promises.
"I think they do feel powerless and at AT&T's mercy," Lyons said.
For its part, AT&T is none too happy with "Fake Steve's" campaign and the attention it's getting.
"We understand that fakesteve.net is primarily a satirical forum, but there is nothing amusing about advocating that customers attempt to deliberately degrade service on a network that provides critical communications services for more than 80 million customers," a company spokeswoman said in a statement. "We know that the vast majority of customers will see this action for what it is: an irresponsible and pointless scheme to draw attention to a blog."
But that hasn't stopped the campaign from gaining traction online.
The "Operation Chokehold" Facebook group grew from 300 Tuesday to more than 1,900 today. It's even inspired a counter group of AT&T supporters on Facebook -- "Operation Cuckoo" -- to protest the protesters.
Leander Kahney, who authors the popular blog "Cult of Mac," said that though it's difficult to anticipate the impact of the campaign, people are definitely getting on board.
"It looks like people are actually going to do this," he said, pointing to the members of the Facebook group who have said they'll take part. In his blog, he said an AT&T spokesman downplayed the effect of the campaign -- but that was when the group was only 300 members strong.
On Facebook and blog comments, campaign supporters are sharing tips and ideas about how to make the biggest dent.
But other iPhone users are piping up in support of AT&T.
"Guys, seriously, poor AT&T is doing their best to handle all this data. Why would we want to crash the system we all use so frequently, the one they are trying so hard to maintain for us?," wrote a Facebook user on the "Operation Chokehold" event page.
How Much Damage Could 'Operation Chokehold' Inflict?
Analysts say that AT&T is aware of its problems and campaigns such as "Operation Chokehold" don't improve the situation.
"It takes a lot of capital investment to build and operate and manage a network," said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research.
Consumers have a right to be frustrated if they've been sold a service and believe they're not getting the quality of service they paid for, he said. But he added that griping about shoddy service while balking at potential price increases to fix the problem "strikes me as wanting to have your cake and eat it too."
"It's a limited resource," he said. "So if more and more people are competing for that limited resource, you have to invest."
And network researchers emphasize that the networks were not designed to support the data demands of the modern-day smart phone users.
"Think back to a few years ago and how many people were using data services. Almost everyone has one of these devices now," said Patrick Traynor, assistant professor in the Georgia Tech College of Computing. "It's difficult to build a network that can deal with such a boom in its usage in such a short time."
The amount of damage "Operation Chokehold" could potentially inflict on the network will depend on the density of the attackers, he said. He also said the impact would likely differ across geographic locations.
He declined to provide specific numbers about how many iPhone users it would take to make a dent, but said that in places that already draw the most complaints about network congestion and slowness, such as parts of California and New York City, "It's not going to take that many people to push it that much further."