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Summary:

Nothing quite works like the threat of the possibility of losing a money-making asset. With rumors that Apple is flirting with Verizon over a future partnership, AT&T has abruptly changed its future wireless broadband plans to include a sudden acceleration of its LTE deployment.

fewer_bars2 Nothing quite works like the threat of the possibility of losing a money-making asset. With rumors that Apple is flirting with Verizon over a future partnership, AT&T has abruptly changed its future wireless broadband plans to include a sudden acceleration of its LTE deployment. LTE is an acronym for Long Term Evolution, the 4G wireless technology that is being favored by most carriers on a global level. Today, AT&T issued a press release touting even faster 3G mobile broadband speeds. Buried in the press release was this little nugget:”AT&T plans to begin LTE trials in 2010, with deployment beginning in 2011.”

Wow! Ma Bell has been insistent that its 3G network has a lot of headroom and it doesn’t need LTE right away. It had hemmed and hawed, saying it wouldn’t begin testing until 2010 or 2011, with full deployment coming after that. What has changed is that, as we pointed out last month, LTE might have been the real reason why Apple and Verizon were getting cozy. As part of today’s announcement, AT&T said:

  • It will boost 3G speeds to HSPA 7.2, and the network upgrades will end by 2011.
  • It plans to begin LTE trials in 2010, with deployment beginning in 2011.
  • The upgraded network platform could allow for theoretical peak speeds of 7.2Mbps, though the speeds you are going to get are likely to be much lower.
  • It will introduce multiple HSPA 7.2-compatible laptop cards and smartphones beginning later this year. You can count on one of them being Apple’s new iPhone.

Having been a harsh critic of AT&T, I liked that the company is finally addressing its network problems. Even CEO Randall Stephenson admitted onstage at the D Conference that there were problems and the company wasn’t quite ready. Of course, at the time, company executives said otherwise. In fact, most of its 3G-related advertising is misleading.

According to the press release:

In addition to the planned speed upgrade, AT&T is enhancing its mobile broadband coverage by nearly doubling the wireless spectrum dedicated to 3G in most metropolitan areas to deliver stronger in-building reception and more overall network capacity. Also, AT&T is adding thousands of new cell site backhaul connections to support the higher mobile broadband speeds enabled by HSPA 7.2 and LTE.

The company has so far been in complete denial about its network coverage. The limitations of its network were exposed during SXSW earlier this year. AT&T has refused to discuss what it was doing in order to fix the problem, instead putting its head in the sand. Today’s press release is the first step in admitting that it has had a problem. Here are some of the things AT&T is doing:

  • Almost doubling the radio frequency capacity. It will be deploying more of its 3G network on the 850 MHz spectrum.
  • More bandwidth to cell sites including adding fiber-optic connectivity and additional capacity to thousands of cell sites across the country this year.
  • More cell sites. Deployment of about 2,100 new cell sites across the country.
  • Many AT&T smartphones will be able to switch seamlessly between 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity.
  • MicroCells. Customer trials leading toward general availability of AT&T 3G MicroCell offerings, which utilize femtocells to enhance in-building wireless coverage.
  • AT&T plans to spend between $17 billion and $18 billion on its network in 2009.

Of course, we wonder what happens to some of those older phones that, like iPhone 1.0, work with the older EDGE network. We wanted to ask Ma Bell about the dropped call problems, but the executives are too busy with meetings or talking to reporters who don’t ask tough questions.

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There is an error in the slide. HSPA+ should read 20+ Mbps. It currently reads 20+ kbps. The error is regretted.

  1. Om, I think you are actually *helping* AT&T by talking about this 500 lb gorilla. I really feel like AT&T should have been more serious about coverage a year ago. With AT&T, I *expect* dropped calls and repeating sentences from my iPhone-using friends right here in AT&T’s backyard, San Francisco. It’s awful at times.

    I just hope that AT&T’s words are followed by actions, and quickly, for their sake!

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    1. Dave

      I couldn’t agree more/ They need to follow up with actions. I will be keeping tabs on how their network rolls out and what kind of improvements do people see.

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  2. would love to see a comparison of the proposed ATT and Verizon network rollouts. thank you for the news Om!

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    1. Verizon has said that their first network would be live in 2010, as per statements made by the company.

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  3. Om,

    The HSPA+ Max rates should be 20+Mbps not Kbps.

    There is no mention of moving to HSPA+ in 2009 as was previously published:
    http://www.unwiredview.com/2008/05/14/att-plans-20-mbs-hspa-network-upgrade-in-2009/

    4G directly?

    -A

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    1. A

      I think they have started moving to HSPA but you are right about the upgrades. I wish they would be more clear about their upgrades. I will follow up.

      PS: thanks for catching the error.

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  4. will be interesting to see how this LTE race evolves, and if AT&T can make enough material progress in the next 12 months to prevent Apple from jumping ship. What they don’t talk about is anything over 7.2Mbps – so they are boosting 3G but also working on LTE? Lets see what really happens.

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  5. [...] Om Malik reports this afternoon at GigaOm: AT&T Moves Up Its LTE Rollout, Admits To Network Issues. Seems that AT&T is finally admitting they have some issues to [...]

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  6. The fact that I can’t get a signal — Edge *OR* 3G — standing in freaking Mountain View, CA, tells you everything you need to know about AT&T’s awful network. They should have enough signal blanketing silicon valley to sterilize a frog. If only my precious, precious iPhone could use another network.

    Oh wait, soon…

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  7. [...] of the news coverage about AT&T's plans to upgrade and accelerate its 3G network. But it was Om Malik's post on GigaOm – which basically noted AT&T's fear of an iPhone running on Verizon's LTE network in [...]

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  8. well the signal strength is improving… i cannot get a signal on my 3g iphone at the crossing of deanza and homestead, about 200 meters from apple hq….however was very pleasantly surprised to find excellent indoor coverage in some critical places like hospitals…

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  9. Jesse Kopelman Wednesday, May 27, 2009

    RE: 2010 LTE testing and 2011 rollout

    I think this is more playing along with Verizon’s BS than anything. I don’t think either company will have much of anything (that is really LTE) deployed before 2012. Just remember that Verizon is the company that claimed they had deployed 3G back when they first went 1XRTT, in all its 60kbps glory. At this point it is just easier to play along and claim that your vaporware will be ready just as soon as the next guys.

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    1. Zing…. that is a good point of view to take. I have to be honest…. that whole 3G fiasco totally slipped my mind. It has been so long… and frankly phone companies are well, phone companies :-D

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    2. Jesse,

      I agree. Any of these carriers can claim an “LTE rollout” even if it’s just one signal tower in Mudbutt, North Dakota.

      Given how long EDGE has hung on in the face of 3G I think any practical 4G coverage is years off. This is why I’m much more interested in the HSPA rollout, which is a software update and something we should get in a more realistic timeframe.

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  10. I thought AT&T 3G coverage was bad in NYC, where I am lucky to see speeds of 50kb/s on a good day. Then I had a trip to LA a few weeks ago and I could not even get Edge coverage, much less 3G, just outside of downtown. They have a long, long way to go here.

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