4G World: Faster 3G in US – Charting HSPA+

CHICAGO -- 4G World -- Even if this week in the Windy City has been billed as a “4G” event, there was actually plenty of talk about faster 3G deployments at the show.

For those who like their speeds and feeds in bite-sized form, here’s a table that lays out expected and potential deployments of High-Speed Packet Access-Plus (HSPA+) networks in the US between now and 2012. All speeds listed are maximum possible download speeds. In real life, users tend to find that they will get something between a third and fifth of the top-line speeds available for average downloads. Even these averages can fall if the network is busy or the user is far away from the nearest base station.

Table 1: HSPA+ in the USA
End of 2010 2011 2012
AT&T 14.4Mbit/s HSPA+ upgrade covering 250 million people by year�s end. 21Mbit/s 3G upgrade as a fall-back to LTE? LTE deployment continues, no word yet on HSPA+.
T-Mobile USA 21Mbit/s HSPA+ in 100 markets by year�s end, covering 200 million people. (65 cities online now.) 42Mbit/s dual-channel upgrade across the 3G network. Possible 84Mbit/s upgrade if 2X2 MIMO-capable phones are available?

As you can see, T-Mobile US Inc. has been most aggressive in ramping the performance of its 3G network. It now has HSPA+ software upgrades, with a maximum download speed of 21 Mbit/s, deployed in 65 cities in the US, with another 35 due to be up by the end of the year.

The operator was somewhat late to the 3G party but is now making up for lost time with some of the fastest download speeds available in the US. T-Mobile is even cheekily describing this service as offering "4G speeds." It plans to follow the initial HSPA+ deployment with a dual channel upgrade that ramps maximum speeds up to 42 Mbit/s in 2011.

Even faster HSPA+ is on the technical roadmap and could likely arrive late in 2011 or in 2012. The 84Mbit/s flavor of HSPA+ requires a two-by-two array of smart antennas in the handset to its speed boost. Mark McDiarmid, senior director of RAN systems engineering and product validation at T-Mobile, notes that smartphone vendors are working on shrinking down the multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) antennas so that they don’t eat battery life in these small gizmos. He doesn’t, however, commit the operator to actually deploying the 84Mbit/s technology as suitable devices become available. T-Mobile’s much larger GSM-based rival AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) is not far behind in the fast 3G stakes. The operator has said that it will deploy a 14.4Mbit/s upgrade to the network that will cover 250 million people by the end of the year. AT&T isn’t revealing when it will flip the switch on the upgrade yet.

Some argue that, technically, HSPA+ starts with the 21Mbit/s version and that the 14.4Mbit/s upgrade is actually the last twist that operators can get out of HSPA. Nonetheless, AT&T is still describing 14.4 Mbit/s as HSPA+.

AT&T still might get to 21Mbit/s HSPA+ as it starts to deploy. David Haight, VP of business development at AT&T's emerging devices organization, said on Tuesday that LTE users will able to "fall back to 21 megabits" when out of LTE markets in 2011. AT&T hasn’t officially said it will deploy 21Mbit/s 3G yet, however. (See 4G World: AT&T to Go to 21Mbit/s HSPA+ in 2011?.)

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

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