AT&T has chosen Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson to build its LTE network, which is set to begin commercial deployment next year. While the carrier is playing catch-up to Verizon, its move to 4G may enable it to hold on to iPhone users after its exclusive pact ends.

AT&T has picked Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson to deploy its LTE network, marking another big win for the two vendors that were tapped last year to build Verizon Wireless’s 4G network. AT&T said it will begin to commercially deploy LTE technology in 2011, confirming plans announced during an earnings call last month, after field trials set to begin later this year.

AT&T is taking a two-step approach to upgrading its network, which Om has called “the Achilles heel of the iPhone experience.” The carrier is deploying High Speed Packet Access 7.2 across its 3G footprint, enabling downloads of up to 7.2 Mbps, before advancing to the LTE technology that promises average download speeds of 5-12 Mbps. AT&T is playing catch-up with Verizon, which plans to offer LTE to areas comprising a total of some 100 million people before the end of this year and everywhere it has 3G by the end of 2013. But the twofold strategy may allow AT&T provide enough of an improved experience to hold on to iPhone users after its oh-so-important exclusive grip on Apple’s iconic device expires.

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