cell towerThe Consumer Electronics Show, taking place in Las Vegas this week, is supposed to provide a glimpse into technology’s future, but in one sense it also feels like a trip back in time — specifically, to a time before 3G cell networks, and sometimes before cell phones period.

For the last three days, the AT&T reception on my iPhone has been atrocious, rendering my phone only barely usable. Judging from everyone else I talk to, as well as other reports, many CES attendees are in the same boat.

Of course, complaints about AT&T’s network, especially among iPhone users in areas like New York and San Francisco, are old news. And it’s probably unfair to single out AT&T, since some of the blame reportedly falls on the iPhone as a device, and I’ve also run into people complaining about their reception on other networks like Verizon.

But the AT&T problems feel particularly noteworthy because they come right after the company’s developer summit, also in Las Vegas, where AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets president and chief executive Ralph de la Vega emphasized AT&T’s continued commitment to and investment in the quality of its network.

Cell reception was actually fine at the summit, but the next day, Thursday, the hordes of CES attendees arrived in force, and suddenly every other phone call got dropped, and text messages inevitably stalled. Oops.

Given the number of CES attendees who are here for business, that’s a pretty big problem. Plus, if an exhibitor was hoping to show off their cool iPhone app, well, they got to show off incredibly slow or nonexistent load times instead. Sometimes we resorted to the low-tech solution of a verbal description of what an app should do.

AT&T says it optimized its network to improve capacity for the conference, but “at an event such as CES, where large numbers of people in a dense area are using smartphones over finite spectrum, periods of network congestion can occur.”

Check out our CES 2010 coverage here.

[Burning cell tower via weepnews.]