AT&T to double speed of 3G, adds more capacity

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Dallas (TX) – AT&T said it will begin upgrading its 3G HSPA network to 7.2 technology, doubling today’s theoretical maximum connection speed. The company also confirmed that it is adding thousands of new cell sites to improve 3G coverage nationwide and increase the bandwidth of cell sites, which should improve 3G connectivity overall by 2011.

The speed upgrade to HSPA 7.2 will offer a maximum bandwidth of 7.2 Mb/s, up from 3.6 Mb/s. Users are not likely to see these numbers in the real world, but should be able to hit download speeds of 0.7 to 1.7 Mb/s, ATT said. Today’s typical connection speeds fall into the range of about 0.4 to 0.7 Mb/s. According to the carrier, the upgrades will begin later this year and are planned to be completed sometime in 2011. Until then, the company expects to have 2100 new 3G cell sites nationwide.

Also, AT&T said that it is adding fiber-optic connectivity and additional capacity to thousands of cell sites across the country this year, expanding the critical connections that deliver traffic from a cell site into the global IP backbone network. These upgrades not only support HSPA 7.2, but the upcoming 4G technology LTE as well. LTE trials are set to begin next year with a rollout expected to begin in 2011.

Interestingly enough, AT&T does not explain in detail how it plans to expand the capacity of its sites. Not enough bandwidth and sites that are crumbling under a massive amount of bandwidth requests especially from smartphones is already a huge challenge and most likely 3G’s and LTE’s greatest vulnerability in today’s wireless broadband market – and in a future competition with WiMax. While WiMax faces challenges of a rapid nationwide rollout and quickly growing coverage, 3G - such as HSPA - just does not have the capacity to deal with the necessary bandwidth today and a speed bump is not necessarily what the technology needs today.

One way for AT&T to decrease the load from its cell sites will be greater leverage of its Wi-Fi network. The company now operates more than 20,000 hotspots in the U.S. and whenever possible, AT&T customers may be seamlessly switched over from a cellular to a Wi-Fi connection.  

AT&T said its 3G network is now available in nearly 350 U.S. major metropolitan areas, with about 20 additional metro areas planned for deployment in 2009. The HSPA 7.2 technology will be deployed “widely” in the network, the firm added and said that it will introduce multiple HSPA 7.2-compatible laptop cards and smartphones beginning later this year.