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AT&T to Boost 3G Speeds, LTE Trials in 2010

[qi:gigaom_icon_4G] AT&T today laid out its plans for upgrading its 3G network to the High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) 7.2 technology that allows downloads of up to 7.2 Mbps. It will start in six cities — Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Miami — and aims to have some 90 percent of its existing 3G footprint converted by the end of 2011.

I’m surprised that AT&T isn’t kicking off this effort in New York and San Francisco, arguably two of the biggest markets for the iPhone (the iPhone 3GS is capable of connecting to this 7.2 Mbps network). Especially given that they’re home to most of the media in this country — and bad network coverage means more stories bemoaning AT&T’s network.

Indeed, today’s announcement is part of an ongoing effort by AT&T to bolster its image in the eyes of the consumer. While in the past it was despised for its monopolistic behavior, these days the company is taking it on the chin because of its chintzy 3G network, which has been weighed down by the growing popularity of the iPhone, a device that encourages people to get on the Internet wirelessly. (Related post: How the iPhone Is Driving a Wireless Bandwidth Boom.)

It was something I brought up with AT&T officials on the day the device was launched. I have always said that the network was the Achilles heel of the iPhone experience. Earlier this year, I opted to give up my iPhone — despite loving the device — solely because of the network. Since then many of my friends have followed suit. And last week, the growing consumer frustration was captured by a  damning piece in The New York Times.

AT&T, which desperately needs to keep riding the iPhone gravy train, has shifted into damage control mode, telling people what it’s been doing in order to get its network up to speed. For instance, AT&T has been trying to use its 850 MHz spectrum for 3G services to meet the demand generated by the iPhone.

However, as I’ve said in the past, AT&T needs a modern backhaul network to meet the bandwidth demands of smartphone users. And according to a company spokesperson, its upgrades are backed by additional backhaul capacity to cell sites; it’s deploying fiber to “several thousands cell sites this year and we plan to connect fiber to several thousand more next year.”

These backhaul connections will not only help ease the pressure being put on AT&T’s infrastructure by faster 7.2 technology, but also meet the needs of its next-generation 4G network, which is based on Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology. Ma Bell plans to start field trials of LTE wireless networks next year and plans to go commercial with LTE in 2011.

15 Responses to “AT&T to Boost 3G Speeds, LTE Trials in 2010”

  1. In Switzerland we will soon have this speed:

    Berne, 04 September 2009, 10:00

    Another first for Swisscom’s mobile data network

    Surfing on the move or working efficiently: more and more people are taking advantage of the benefits of mobile data communication. The rapidly growing volume of data traffic means that the network needs to expand continuously. Right in time for the ITU Telecom World 2009 in Geneva, Swisscom is rolling out HSPA+, the latest technology for mobile data traffic. HSPA+ allows far more people to surf the net simultaneously from the same radio cell without any loss in speed.

    The quantity of data traffic sent via the wireless telecommunications network has trebled in the space of a year. An ever-growing proportion of Swisscom’s over five million mobile customers uses mobile data communication, whether for surfing on the move or attending to business. And this rapid growth is set to continue. Particularly in major urban centres, tourist areas and busy SBB lines, the mobile network is at times stretched almost to capacity which is why Swisscom is continuously upgrading its mobile networks. Following on from the introduction of HSPA 14.4 some nine months ago, Swisscom is again bringing the very latest in telecommunications technology to Switzerland in the shape of HSPA+, which will double the transmission speed of each radio cell to up to 28.8 Mbps. This means that far more customers can use these radio cells simultaneously and at a constant high speed.

    Millions to be invested to increase capacity
    Swisscom is to invest tens of millions in the HSPA+ rollout over the coming years. Every year, Swisscom invests over one billion Swiss francs in the expansion and modernisation of its infrastructure and equips it to meet future requirements.

    Swisscom will commence its HSPA+ rollout at the Geneva exhibition site at the launch of the world’s largest telecommunications exhibition, which is taking place in the Swiss city on 5 – 9 October 2009. Thereafter, further locations across Switzerland where high volumes of customers regularly access the mobile Internet will be added. It is anticipated that the first terminal devices capable of utilising the higher bandwidth will appear on the market over the coming year.

  2. the upgrade would only exasperate the problems in new york and San Fransisco since double speeds means double spectrum usage per subscriber. what might actually help is to throttle back the peak speeds a bit to increase reliability and capacity.

  3. My guess is that AT&T wants to try out HSPA under less challenging circumstances before rolling out in SF and NYC. Same reason theater producers trial shows before subjecting them to the toughest critics on Broadway.

  4. The first iPhone didn’t do 3G. The fiber backhaul capacity bump will help all services, not just HSPA. It is going to take a while though. I’m not aware of any cellular provider that has had their 3G network pay off yet. The global economy going crunch isn’t going to speed up capital investment either. Tomorrow just can’t come soon enough… *sigh*

  5. Isn’t the term “upgrade” sort of misleading here? Sure the HSPA access will be faster… but only for those customers who have the iPhone 3GS or those who purchase new, (expensive) HSPA-ready devices. The old 3G customers are stuck with the old network. And LTE will be another customer equipment upgrade. Call this the triple pay, not triple play…

  6. @Om,

    What’s interesting is that AT&T is just now making these upgrades, more than 2 years after the original iPhone launch. Combine this timing with the recession which started in December of 2007, and it is quite puzzling that AT&T waited so long to make these upgrades.

    I think if AT&T had been making these upgrades all along, not only would they be in position to hold onto the iPhone in the US, but i’d bet AT&T would also be ahead of Verizon in its’ rollout of LTE.

    Poor operating decisions by AT&T after successfully securing the iPhone. Go figure.

    My $.02,


  7. David Cole

    I have played with the iPhone many times and have been tempted to switch but the factor has always been AT &T. I appreciate your condor and althought they say they are making changes, I also find it hard to believe they don’t start In San Francisco or New York. Maybe they could explain their reason behind Charlotte, Dallas and Houston before SF? It’s a pour decision, but something I’ve come to expect from AT & T when I left them 6 years ago!

    • AT&T needs to fix the existing network in Houston before they upgrade. I can see their corporate office from my office window and yet I can’t take a phone call in my office. Lame.

    • Why would you appreciate a vulture? Candor, on the other hand, is always appreciated.

      /Spelling police

      As an aside, AT&T is initially pursuing HSPA 7.2 in places where it already has fiber trenched, i.e. U-verse markets. This will help them save on the backhaul upgrades.