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.