LTE 4G: AT&T steps up its game

AT&T appears to be hitting the gas a bit on its Long Term Evolution 4G deployment as Verizon Wireless plans to hit a bunch of markets in the fourth quarter and early 2011.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

AT&T appears to be hitting the gas a bit on its Long Term Evolution 4G deployment as Verizon Wireless plans to hit a bunch of markets in the fourth quarter and early 2011.

These LTE rollouts are closely watched since smartphone and wireless card users will welcome faster speeds. Today, Sprint, which uses WiMax technology via Clearwire, is the only carrier out there with 4G speeds.

As noted by an analyst, AT&T has a bit of a perception issue regarding LTE. The common perception is that AT&T is hanging back on LTE as Verizon conducts user trials and plots to add 4G in 25 to 35 markets. That perception stems from comments late last year by AT&T executives, who have said LTE is more of a 2012 mass adoption play. For instance, Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobility, said in December that you can talk about LTE, but "it will take some time before we see a rich set of devices." At the time, de la Vega was all about HSPA 7.2 upgrades, an intermediate step to LTE.

However, John Stankey, CEO of AT&T Operations, countered that slow-to-LTE perception. Speaking at a Bank of AMerica Merrill Lynch conference Thursday, Stankey said that AT&T is currently testing LTE in Baltimore and Dallas.

An aggressive LTE rollout will happen throughout 2011. Here's a look at Stankey's full remarks.

Getting to LTE is an important part. There is a lot of work going on today. You should understand that. We've got tests up in our markets in Dallas and in Baltimore where we are physically out working with the network and understanding it. Our implementation is a bit different here. Our implementation is not a data overlay. We are building a network that is integrated with our existing UMTS network. So customers take the features and capabilities that they have on UMTS forward to LTE.

We also want to time this so that we come into this with the ecosystem. We believe customers want a robust experience. In a mobile environment, you can't have a robust experience unless you're tied to the device. Whether it is the battery life, the quality of the service on the device, the applications that come with it, the form factor of the device, all those things have to play with the network.

Stankey talked about melding 3G and LTE coverage:

Our goal on this is that our implementation allows for good experience, whether you're on the new network of 100 million pops of LTE as we start to introduce it and bring it out, or whether you are operating on the old network of 200 million 3G POPs as we start to increase that.

And by the end of 2011, AT&T expects to be locked and loaded on LTE. Stankey said:

If we are sitting on the sidelines, I would introduce you a couple of thousand people in my organization who deal with LTE everyday full-time. It takes time to build these networks, and so our intent is, as we have said, we are going to be in a commercial situation to launch by mid next year. In order to do that, you think about a build cycle on these things, it is six to eight months to basically do designs and implementation.

So right now there are people actively doing the designs, issuing them to vendors, doing configuration changes on cell towers to put new antennas up, getting power ready -- all those things that are necessary to have a meaningful launch by the time we hit 2011.

Our goal is to be around 70, 75 million POPs by the end of 2011. So we're not sitting on the sideline; we are actively working. We are actively evaluating the technology. We are actively working with our vendor base. We have a different implementation, as I indicated. That implementation is probably a little bit more challenging from the perspective of we are carrying services forward on our UMTS-based LTE.

Overall, AT&T said it will spend $700 million on LTE deployments in 2010 with more spending in 2011.

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