HSPA+ in the US & the Wait for Handsets

T-Mobile US Inc. is currently ahead of its larger rival AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) in deploying the faster high-speed packet access plus (HSPA+) and will likely be first with smartphones that can support the technology, but analysts suggest that AT&T should be able to bring out a version of the Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPhone using HSPA+ in the future.

AT&T said earlier this month that it now intends to upgrade some of its 3G network to support maximum download speeds of 14.4 Mbit/s, doubling the fastest rates currently offered on its network. The HSPA+ upgrade will cover 250 million people in the fourth quarter, according to AT&T's operations chief John Stankey. (See AT&T Plots Widescale HSPA+ Rollout and AT&T to Boost 3G Speeds .)

T-Mobile USA has already upgraded to a version of HSPA+ that supports maximum downloads of 21 Mbit/s in markets like New York and Philadelphia. The fourth-largest US carrier wants to cover 185 million people and more than 100 major metropolitan areas by the end of the year. (See MWC 2010: T-Mob's 3G Speed Race.)

Both operators say that the service will be limited to laptop users to begin with. Neither is confirming the launch dates of any smartphones using the technology yet.

"We anticipate that initial HSPA+ devices will be laptop cards and integrated chips," a spokeswoman for AT&T says. "Beyond that, we haven't provided further guidance on our HSPA+ device plans."

T-Mobile currently offers a "T-Mobile webConnect Rocket" USB dongle to users wishing to exploit the faster speeds of the network. "We don't have additional product details to share," a T-Mobile spokeswoman tells us. Nonetheless, the carrier's CTO, Cole Brodman, reportedly said at CTIA this March that the first HSPA+ handsets would be available in the second half of this year.

It is evidently not an enormous technical undertaking to upgrade either the 3G network or new devices to take advantage of the higher download speeds. "It's essentially a software upgrade," Technology Business Research Inc. (TBR) analyst Ken Hyers says.

He expects that AT&T and Apple will look to upgrade the top-selling iPhone to take advantage of the 3G speed increase. "One would expect... in their case certainly the iPhone would benefit on the data side, as would any other data-intensive mobile device, such as the iPad or an Android phone," Hyers says.

"It is in both Apple's and AT&T's collective best interest to move quickly on transitioning the iPhone to next-generation wireless network capability," agrees independent telecom analyst, Carmi Levy, in an email reply to questions. "As competing handset/network solutions from other carriers begin to erode Apple's dominant market position, the iPhone either needs to evolve with some network mojo of its own, or risk being overtaken by faster, more robust offerings."

There is already a lot of speculation that Apple will announce that it is issuing a CDMA version of the iPhone for Verizon Wireless that would be available later this year at its upcoming developer's conference in San Francisco on June 7. A move by AT&T to offer the iPhone with peak 3G speeds that Verizon can't currently match could be a way for AT&T to keep its iPhone base happy and attract new subscribers. "A rapid, well-executed shift to HSPA+ could give holdouts one less reason to keep away from an AT&T-supplied iPhone," Levy notes.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

joset01 12/5/2012 | 4:35:08 PM
re: HSPA+ in the US & the Wait for Handsets

If HTC does do something like the EVO for T-Mob on HSPA+ they could have a hit on their hands. 




FredStein 12/5/2012 | 4:34:54 PM
re: HSPA+ in the US & the Wait for Handsets

This may be a tiresome issue, but who wants to hear about AT&T's HSPA+ plans when they drops 3G call in NYC, San Francisco, and the suburbs (no hils or tall buildings) in the heart of silicon valley. Folks tell me the cause is too many users hitting on the antenae. Getting the advertised data rate consistently is plenty of bandwidth for most needs.

Seriously, what would be the cost to upgrade to HSPA+ in big way? If that alleviates plan old 3G congestion, great.

joset01 12/5/2012 | 4:34:53 PM
re: HSPA+ in the US & the Wait for Handsets

Re: Cost of upgrade


Haven't found anyone that can put a real figure on it but it is essentially a software upgrade on the network side. Note that neither T-Mob or AT&T are going with a HSPA+ faster than the 21 Mbit/s upgrade, which is possibly because that DOES involve new hardware (antennas and stuff) so would start to get spendy, as far as I can tell this is the cheapest and simplest way either can get a speed boost on the network. 

joset01 12/5/2012 | 4:34:53 PM
re: HSPA+ in the US & the Wait for Handsets

Well, as I understand it least that's more of a multi-layered issue.

Upgrading to HSPA+ is not going to change the backhaul situation, which was part of the problem in the first place with the massive influx of iPhone users putting pressure on the network.

Does the upgrade have any effect on signaling? Doubt it and that seems to another part of the issue, as I understand it LTE fixes this because they get to dedicate more bandwidth to the switching channel but we'll see it.

Than AT&T had some old equipment in SF that they are -- or maybe have  already -- going to replace to improve performance.

I actually think this is a much bigger deal for T-Mobile, they've been ramping up backhaul for a while to deal with this as I understand it. So they've get the bragging rights to claim to be the fastest 3G network on wheels for a while. If they can get a cool HSPA+ handset out in a timely fashion they might be able to win back some subs from the big boys.

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