4G World 2012: AT&T Plays Consumer Catch-Up

CHICAGO -- 4G World 2012 -- The wireless industry hasn't been effective in predicting what its customers want, Kris Rinne, senior vice president of Network Technology at AT&T Labs , stated during a keynote here Tuesday.

So to keep up with changing customer choices, AT&T's strategy is to get the most out of its networks (plural), including the small cell technology currently in trials and, eventually, unlicensed Wi-Fi connections as well as its current mobile infrastructure.

"When you are creating the perfect network... our traditional metrics [are not] going to be enough for the future," stated Rinne, citing a 20,000 percent increase in mobile data traffic since 2007.

Consumers may say they want "broad coverage, solid and reliable voice calls and faster data networks," but experience shows that when innovators such as Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) offer them much more, they are quick to move in that direction. AT&T is now relying more on what it knows its customers are doing and trying to drive its network technologies to keep up, she said.

For example, recent experience shows consumers in large sports venues not only download massive quantities of data, but upload mass quantities too, in the form of videos and photos, noted Rinne. AT&T has responded by deploying Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) technology at major sports venues nationally, upgrading the DAS to LTE and, this summer, adding "five-beam multi-beam" antennas to handle the traffic.

Rinne said AT&T has actually used "nine-beam multi-beam" antennas at some sports venues and at Comic-Con in San Diego this summer.

AT&T is also using self-optimizing network technology to address congestion across its networks and to enable carrier aggregation -- the combination of multiple wireless channels into a single logical channel to increase available bandwidth and improve the mobile broadband experience.

In addition, As AT&T deploys LTE, it is placing the radio head at the top of the tower or on a rooftop instead of inside the cabinet at the base of the tower, bringing the base station closer to the user and reducing the power consumption, Rinne added. That approach enables higher throughput and better coverage.

AT&T has been field-testing small cells and has started deployments on its UMTS and HSPA+ networks, and will add LTE deployments and eventually Wi-Fi, Rinne said. While interference and backhaul challenges remain in such deployments, AT&T considers small cells an "essential tool" to provide full coverage, she added.

As for Wi-Fi, AT&T currently has 100,000 Wi-Fi hot spots and these already are automatically available for AT&T smartphones, but once security issues are resolved for the interface, and management issues for the unlicensed spectrum are resolved, those endpoints will become part of AT&T’s HetNet strategy too.

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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