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May 27, 2009

Hunk of Network Upgrade News from AT&T

AT&T releases a pile of news about how it plans to deal with current, future 3G bandwidth needs: I have to credit AT&T for its comprehensive announcement about what it's up to today to improve its network, and its plans over the next few years as 3G use will likely increase dramatically, and it starts to roll out LTE, a 4G network technology.

There's a lot of geekiness in this press release. The company provided some updates on its 7.2 Mbps upgrade plan. The HSPA (high speed packet access) technology it uses, part of the GSM roadmap, is currently limited to 3.6 Mbps. The 7.2 Mbps flavor isn't in wide use worldwide, but it's starting to kick in as demand from smartphones and mobile broadband users with netbooks and laptops steps up.

The timing is clear: Apple is about to release a revised iPhone, one that various usually reliable sites report will record video, take larger pictures, and have a faster processor. It will also almost certainly contain a 7.2 Mbps HSPA chipset, and thus be a huge and immediate drain on 3G resources across AT&T's territory. (Apple's developers conference is in two weeks, at which time the company will likely announced that the iPhone 3G+ and its iPhone 3.0 software will be released in July.)

AT&T's CEO said at the All Things D conference run by the Wall Street Journal this morning, in reference to Wi-Fi that there's a growing "bandwidth requirement," and that mobile broadband has to meet what fixed-line (fiber/DSL/cable) services can provide. Wi-Fi is a "bridge," he said, and AT&T can back its 20,000+ Wi-Fi hotspots with fixed-line services. But obviously the company also has to beef up mobile broadband, too. (The 20,000 count is new; it was about 17,000 not too long ago.)

In order to support the 7.2 Mbps HSPA service and future LTE, AT&T says it's doubling the amount of bandwidth devoted to 3G in many metropolitan markets, and bringing more backhaul to "thousands of cell sites." The company couches its backhaul statement by saying "fiber-optic connectivity and additional capacity," meaning it's not bringing fiber to thousands of cell sites, but to some of them.

The company will also add 2,100 cell sites to improve density. The greater the density, the smaller the cells, and thus the fewer devices that connect to each cell, increasing frequency reuse over a given area.

AT&T is also expanding its use of 850 MHz, which has better penetration to interior spaces, and can cover more area from a single base station. That's a smart move to counter some of the CDMA advantage in the U.S., where Sprint and Verizon seemingly have better network coverage. (AT&T's network was built up as more of a patchwork in many ways, and AT&T still lacks its own coverage in some small but significant parts of the country.)

On the Wi-Fi side, AT&T says it will offer seamless Wi-Fi/3G switching on "many" smartphones. That might be a reference to a capability that could be part of the iPhone 3.0 software due out perhaps as soon as July. AT&T currently has a very silly SMS-based notification system to get a code that allows free access, although Devicescape's Easy Wi-Fi for AT&T (99¢) automates the process. (It's a mystery that AT&T didn't either license and distribute that software from Devicescape or develop its own similar approach.)

A bit buried at the end of the paragraph is rather fascinating: "AT&T also can create permanent or temporary extended Wi-Fi zones in areas with high 3G network use, like a grouping of hotels or a festival." Fascinating. This is an interesting admission of scarcity coupled with AT&T's fixed prices for smartphone 3G use (as opposed to 5GB/mo limits on laptop 3G connections).

Wi-Fi's key advantage and problem is its low power, which both allows and requires a honeycomb of tiny radius cells. In a dense area with lots of usage, AT&T could push in dozens of Wi-Fi access points tied into a fiber network and overlay gigabits per second of additional capacity without stressing the 3G infrastructure. I've never heard of a carrier suggesting that they might do this before, however.

AT&T also said in this release that it's working towards releasings its 3G MicroCell, a femtocell product that's been talked about widely and is in some test customers' hands. It's still not clear whether AT&T will follow the Sprint model of adding a fee for unlimited monthly incoming calls and U.S. outgoing calls, or the Verizon model of paying a large fee for the femtocell, and gaining only indoor coverage improvement. AT&T is unique at this point is having a 3G femtocell for voice and data; Verizon and Sprint's system's are 2G and voice only.