4G: Taking Extreme Speed to New Limits

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AT&T’s 4G Rollout Finally Gets Under Way

A victim of its own success, AT&T had to get its 3G act together before making the LTE jump.

By Andy Patrizio

AT&T thought it scored a coup when it picked up the iPhone from Apple, but it ended up being the guinea pig for data usage plans that distracted it from a 4G rollout. So while the company was a little slower than its main competitor Verizon, it also has a solid 3G network to show for it.

The iPhone initially came with an unlimited data plan, and iPhone users promptly used it. The result was AT&T’s network being crushed by iPhone users, forcing the company to institute data caps and its competitors to do the same (except for Sprint).

So where does that leave the LTE rollout? Lagging. To address the numerous complaints about its 3G network, AT&T sunk billions into upgrades, adding HSPA+, what some people call 3.5G. HSPA+ is twice as fast as traditional 3G, with a theoretical limit of 14 megabits down instead of 7 megabits.

AT&T plays it fast and loose with the “4G” term, using it interchangeably to describe both its HSPA+ products and LTE as well, whereas Verizon Wireless only uses 4G to describe its LTE product offerings.

AT&T began LTE rollout in September 2011 in five large cities (Atlanta, Chicago, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas) and expanded to 15 cities by the end of the year, covering 70 million Americans. As of February 2012, AT&T’s LTE service is in 26 cities covering 74 million people. It has four dedicated 4G LTE phones running Android, one tablet (the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9), a USB modem for laptops, and a mobile hotspot base station.

Normally companies don’t reveal their rollout plans in too much detail, but AT&T’s plans were unwillingly released by a law firm that was working on AT&T’s ill-fated attempted merger with T-Mobile. The law firm posted a partially redacted document with AT&T’s 4G rollout plans, which was promptly grabbed and posted all over the tech blogosphere.

AT&T plans to increase its 4G coverage to up to 170 million by the end of 2012 and a full 250 million by the end of 2013. If the merger had been allowed to go through, AT&T hoped to upgrade all of it and T-Mobile’s nodes to LTE to cover 97 percent of all Americans within the six years following approval.

Considering that AT&T expects to have its network fully 4G covered by the end of 2013, it should be glad the merger with T-Mobile was nixed. That would have been an enormous boat anchor around the company.

Unlike Verizon, which raised its data caps for 4G users, AT&T actually lowered data plans. It offers plans of $15 per month for 200MB of data or $25 for 2GB of data, while 3G smartphone users get 300MB per month for $20 and 3GB for $30.

AT&T’s time and money spent upgrading its 3G network was hardly money wasted. It will have a fast 3G HSPA+ network on which to fall back once you get outside of 4G coverage.

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