CES: AT&T Lays Out Big 4G Network Plans, Plans To Woo Developers


Better late than never, right, AT&T? (NYSE: T) Today at CES, the wireless giant announced plans to start lighting up its LTE network in the middle of this year, completing the rollout by the end of 2013. AT&T is the last of the major carriers to go public on its 4G strategy. But in catching up, it may have one-bettered its competitors: the operator will launch 20 4G devices this year, including handsets from HTC, Samsung, and Motorola (NYSE: MOT). AT&T is also trying to up its game in the content department, spearheading a new strategy to open its network to developers.

AT&T has suffered some abysmal press for the quality of its 3G network, and you can’t help but feel that a lot of what it is doing now on the network side is to rub out that bad reputation once and for all.

When 4G users are outside of AT&T’s LTE footprint — which will take another two years to be nationwide — they will automatically go on to AT&T’s HSPA+ network. AT&T today said that it has upgraded “virtually” 100 percent of its 3G network to HSPA+ already, which gives users download speeds of up to six megabits per second. AT&T says that it is the only operator that has invested in building out both HSPA+ and LTE services.

Devices. It’s all but been confirmed that AT&T will very soon lose its exclusive grip on the iPhone, and perhaps it’s because of this that the company was really pumping the Android line today. It promises an “industry-leading Android portfolio” with least 12 new Android devices in 2011.

The three Android phones unveiled today — Samsung’s Infuse 4G, HTC’s Inspire 4G and Motorola’s ATRIX 4G (pictured) are HSPA+ devices, rather than LTE phones.

Each sports distinctive features that are giving more insight into how device makers will be differentiating themselves when all effectively working with the same basic operating system. Samsung is the supermodel of the lot: its USP seems to be its big Amoled screen and it claims to be the thinnest Android phone on the market. Meanwhile, Motorola’s device claims to be the “most powerful” smartphone, and can be used with a laptop dock and a high-end media dock. The HTC has some great tracking and security features on it for the more disorganised prosumer.

Developers. AT&T also said it is investing $70 million to build three “innovation centers”, aimed at the developer community. These will be in Dallas, Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv and will all open this year.

Developers will get access to APIs in AT&T’s network, which AT&T hopes this will result in the creation of apps and services that make better use of it — and thereby ensure AT&T gets a bigger piece of the action than it does in the current crop of apps on the market. This is not the first carrier to try to reach out to developers in this way. Telefonica (NYSE: TEF) and Orange have undertaken similar initiatives.

What’s interesting about AT&T’s initiative is that it lays out some specific areas where it hopes developers will work: more apps for Brew (feature) phones; apps for its U-verse TV service; apps and content for HTML5 deployment; and the Open Feint social gaming platform. Pointedly, it’s not about apps for the existing app stores that seem to be getting most of the attention today (and don’t make much use of AT&T’s assets, except to carry some traffic).

And on that note, one name that was absent from AT&T’s presentation today (as absent as it is from the CES show) was Apple (NSDQ: AAPL). Although there was some speculation that Verizon might debut with an LTE iPhone, we’ll only be able to see for sure when AT&T’s big rival gives its own LTE-heavy press conference tomorrow.

Full release from AT&T is here.

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