HSPA+ in the US & the Wait for Handsets
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