This year, everyone’s talking about who will be the new Foursquare
or Twitter at SxSW 2010
. But it will also be interesting to see who will be
this year’s big screw up. AT&T is working hard to make sure it won’t
be them again.

A strong showing at the annual tech festival in Austin Texas can do great things for business. But for those that make a bad impression at SxSW, it can take a long time to recover. And last year at the festival, AT&T let down a lot of people. The telecom giant is determined not to let the same thing happen this year, but it’s going to take a lot to win back stubborn techies.

AT&T has something that most startups at SxSW don’t: a guaranteed audience. Due to its exclusive contract with Apple to distribute the iPhone, AT&T has gotten itself access to a large audience of early tech adopters — a large percentage of whom show up every year in Austin for SxSW.

Last year, the massive number of users trying to access AT&T’s cell and data network overwhelmed capacity and led to many dropped calls and undelivered messages. It was a PR disaster for the carrier and over the subsequent year, AT&T has earned an increasingly negative reputation for bad service. Now the company is embroiled in a turf war with competitor Verizon in ongoing ad campaigns that try to denigrate each other’s service capabilities.

One of AT&T’s latest ads now has even incorporated Verizon’s map image into its critique of its competitor:

This year, the network wants to avoid getting charged with complacency. AT&T has been working to upgrade its service around the country, but especially in Austin.

According to gigaom, AT&T has outfitted the city with a new antenna system near the convention center, upgraded its spectrum, imported three mobile cell towers and added “fiber-optic connections to more than quadruple the backhaul capacity of each of the eight cell sites that serve the event area.”

Meanwhile, AT&T is getting better service reviews lately. According to PC World, AT&T’s download speed is 67% faster than its competitors. But convincing convention goers that service has improved is a big goal. So far on Twitter, people are looking forward to better service, but hesitant to trust that it will happen. A sample:

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If AT&T can really provide reliable service in Austin, it will help to undo some of the damage of last year and prove that the changes it has been making are working. Part of the problem in 2009 involved having such a highly concentrated number of smartphone users in one location. At the time it was an outsized number that wasn’t often replicated, even in more urban areas, but as smartphone adoption increases, cell phone users are increasingly adopting the habits of early tech adopters.

SxSW attendees may be a fickle bunch, and their same media consumption habits may differ from the general populace, but if the network can appease them, it will go a long way toward changing its reputation in regards to spotty service. And accomplishing that becomes increasingly important AT&T’s exclusivity contract gets closer to running out on the iPhone.

Images: SxSW, AT&T, Twitter