Exclusive — Hands on With T-Mobile’s 21 Mbps HSPA+ Network

Mobile broadband as we know it today is at a bit of a crossroads in the U.S. We have four major carriers that now offer fairly comparable broadband speeds with EVDO Rev. A and HSPA. LTE networks with greater speed are rolling out next year and we’re currently in the midst of a nationwide WiMAX 4G network implementation. What was once a novelty item — the mobile web — is now becoming commonplace, but consumers want more speed. Today, I got a look at “more speed” by using T-Mobile’s 21 Mbps HSPA+ test network in the Philadelphia area.

Let me set up the scenario before sharing my experiences. T-Mobile kindly loaned me a webConnect USB stick that works on their 3G network. The hardware is only capable of downloading data at 7.2 Mbps while uploads theoretically max out at 5.76 Mbps. So essentially, the hardware I used can’t possibly take full advantage of the faster test network. However, you can see the difference between T-Mobile’s standard 3G network and this test 3.5G network. From my home, I used the webConnect stick to hit Speedtest.net, a popular bandwidth testing website. In my home office, I saw speeds comparable to EVDO: 1.11 Mbps down and 0.67 Mbps back up.

Using the same hardware in the HSPA+ test network, speeds dramatically increased: 5.58 Mbps down and 1.23 Mbps up. Using the pingtime to measure latency, both tests were comparable: 118ms at home and 115ms in the test network.

I actually expected slightly faster upload times, but I’m not going to be too critical of the test network: it’s not optimized. When T-Mobile rolls out HSPA+, I’d expect the production network to be more efficient than the test network. And while fast uploads are useful, I suspect that there’s far more demand in general for downloads than uploads.

While I was able to test with the provided hardware, I realized that I have another device that’s better equipped to try HSPA+: the loaner Nokia N900 that was delivered over the weekend. This device can handle downloads up to 10Mbps and uploads at 2Mbps. So how did it do? I’ll let the picture tell the story:

Just a simple hardware swap offered a noticeable boost to the download speed of the test network. At 1.5 Mbps faster, the gain alone is quicker than many 3G connections used today. Using the Nokia N900 for a few minutes on this network was like using it over a home Wi-Fi connection — the web came to me on the road as fast as I needed it too.

But consumers don’t really care about speedtests. They want an enjoyable mobile web experience when actually doing things, so that’s what I did. A few highlights of the experience:

  • I downloaded our latest MobileTechRoundup podcast. The 32.1 MB audio file was on my computer in 44 seconds.
  • Watching a high-res Hulu video was like watching it at home over my FiOS connection.
  • Viewing an HD YouTube vid worked with nary a stutter, nor any buffering.
  • I uploaded an 11.6 MB audio file in 78 seconds.

Ultimately, the test network performed very well — most T-Mobile customers should be happy when the HSPA+ network rolls around to their neck of the woods. And that gets me back to the timing and crossroads we’re at — T-Mobile tells me that HSPA+ is anticipating deployment by mid-2010. The carrier is currently in the process of migrating from its 3.6 Mbps HSPA network to 7.2 Mbps. And it’s not just for new hardware — many existing handsets like the G1, MyTouch and TouchPro 2 can take advantage of the in-progress network upgrade. That benefit can go a long way when compared to the WiMAX alternative, which requires new hardware for its network.

Speaking of WiMAX, I have to travel back in time for a minute. I remember attending the WiMAX launch in Baltimore last year and getting a taste of those speeds. The network wasn’t a test network and yet the speeds I witnessed generally weren’t faster than what I saw today. There was the occasional 6 Mbps download, but my repeated testing hovered around 3.5 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps back up. Testing the HSPA+ network today deals a bit of a body blow to WiMAX in my mind — T-Mobile will have it rolled out faster and existing hardware will benefit immediately from it. LTE is bit of a dark horse in all this, although Verizon (s vz) recently claimed we should expect downloads in the 5 to 12 Mbps range with uploads around 2 to 5 Mbps. While that is faster than what I saw today, the service is planned for 25 to 30 locations by the end of 2010. T-Mobile is expecting all of their high-speed coverage areas to see HSPA+ speeds by the middle of 2010. And let’s not overlook AT&T (s t). It is is just now deploying 7.2 Mbps HSPA in six cities and expects to offer it to 25 markets by the end of 2010. Looks like the race for faster mobile broadband is on and in my backyard, T-Mobile’s HSPA+ just took the lead.