Optical/IP Networks

4G World: AT&T – an LTE Tortoise

CHICAGO -- 4G World -- AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) may appear to be behind in deploying Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology, but a senior VP speaking at the show this morning insisted that slow and steady will win the race.

Verizon Wireless expects to launch its first two LTE markets sometime early in 2010. MetroPCS Inc. (NYSE: PCS) said Tuesday that it is now planning an initial launch in the second half of 2010.

And AT&T? Kris Rinne, SVP of architecture and planning, said in her keynote this morning that AT&T will begin trials of the technology next year with initial commercial launches planned for 2011. There's more to an LTE launch than just deploying a network, she told the crowd.

"Are we going to be left behind by our competitors as we roll out LTE?" she asked rhetorically. "I would contend 'no.' As I've said before, it's not just about speed, it's about the whole customer experience." So, those commentators feverishly anticipating an LTE iPhone in 2010 -- from either AT&T or Verizon -- will likely be left whistling for it. (See LTE Phones Will Lag Behind Networks .) "No doubt there will be data cards, but there will be a limited number of devices next year," Rinne said.

In contrast, Rinne is anticipating a pool of 600 or so High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) 7.2 gadgets to choose from, as AT&T deploys that technology this year and through 2011. The company expects to have six HSPA 7.2-compatible smartphones in its device portfolio by the end of the year, as well as two new laptop cards. (See AT&T to Boost 3G Speeds .) After the 2010 tests, AT&T will deploy its LTE network on 700 MHz and Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum in 2011, eventually migrating to other bands. AT&T's 700 MHz spectrum holdings cover 200 major U.S. markets, or about 87 percent of the population, Rinne said. The carrier is working to ensure that LTE devices are backwards-compatible with 3G, so that users can get connected across the country.

Rinne doesn't anticipate deploying voice-over-LTE until 2012, which might be an indication of when the carrier expects LTE-only handsets to become widely available. The carrier is working on an IMS-based system for LTE voice. In short, AT&T will let its rivals take on LTE's teething troubles, while adding more sites and faster backhaul to improve its 3G speed, coverage, and services. Rinne said she's "well aware" of the backlash against spotty 3G service from iPhone users. The company will be adding more fiber and Ethernet backhaul to try to alleviate bottlenecks.

Offloading traffic from crowded 3G networks is also part of AT&T's plan, whether that means transferring heavy data traffic to a WiFi hotspot or a 3G femtocell in the home. AT&T has become a major hotspot provider already, through the acquisition of Wayport and the addition of thousands of new sites. (See AT&T Buys Wayport for $275M and AT&T Sees Surge in WiFi Connections .)

Rinne didn't say exactly when AT&T would introduce its long-awaited 3G femtocell. She did say that the vendor is still in tests and working on a "location piece" for E911 and other applications. AT&T's executive director for radio access network delivery, Gordon Mansfield, has previously said that the "microcell" is expected before the end of the year. (See AT&T on Track for Femto Launch and AT&T on Track for Femto Launch.)

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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