AT&T Moves Up Its LTE Rollout, Admits To Network Issues

fewer_bars2 Nothing quite works like the threat of the possibility of losing a money-making asset. With rumors that Apple (s AAPL) is flirting with Verizon over a future partnership, AT&T (s T) has abruptly changed its future wireless broadband plans to include a sudden acceleration of its LTE deployment. LTE is an acronym for Long Term Evolution, the 4G wireless technology that is being favored by most carriers on a global level. Today, AT&T issued a press release touting even faster 3G mobile broadband speeds. Buried in the press release was this little nugget:”AT&T plans to begin LTE trials in 2010, with deployment beginning in 2011.”

Wow! Ma Bell has been insistent that its 3G network has a lot of headroom and it doesn’t need LTE right away. It had hemmed and hawed, saying it wouldn’t begin testing until 2010 or 2011, with full deployment coming after that. What has changed is that, as we pointed out last month, LTE might have been the real reason why Apple and Verizon were getting cozy. As part of today’s announcement, AT&T said:

  • It will boost 3G speeds to HSPA 7.2, and the network upgrades will end by 2011.
  • It plans to begin LTE trials in 2010, with deployment beginning in 2011.
  • The upgraded network platform could allow for theoretical peak speeds of 7.2Mbps, though the speeds you are going to get are likely to be much lower.
  • It will introduce multiple HSPA 7.2-compatible laptop cards and smartphones beginning later this year. You can count on one of them being Apple’s new iPhone.

Having been a harsh critic of AT&T, I liked that the company is finally addressing its network problems. Even CEO Randall Stephenson admitted onstage at the D Conference that there were problems and the company wasn’t quite ready. Of course, at the time, company executives said otherwise. In fact, most of its 3G-related advertising is misleading.

According to the press release:

In addition to the planned speed upgrade, AT&T is enhancing its mobile broadband coverage by nearly doubling the wireless spectrum dedicated to 3G in most metropolitan areas to deliver stronger in-building reception and more overall network capacity. Also, AT&T is adding thousands of new cell site backhaul connections to support the higher mobile broadband speeds enabled by HSPA 7.2 and LTE.

The company has so far been in complete denial about its network coverage. The limitations of its network were exposed during SXSW earlier this year. AT&T has refused to discuss what it was doing in order to fix the problem, instead putting its head in the sand. Today’s press release is the first step in admitting that it has had a problem. Here are some of the things AT&T is doing:

  • Almost doubling the radio frequency capacity. It will be deploying more of its 3G network on the 850 MHz spectrum.
  • More bandwidth to cell sites including adding fiber-optic connectivity and additional capacity to thousands of cell sites across the country this year.
  • More cell sites. Deployment of about 2,100 new cell sites across the country.
  • Many AT&T smartphones will be able to switch seamlessly between 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity.
  • MicroCells. Customer trials leading toward general availability of AT&T 3G MicroCell offerings, which utilize femtocells to enhance in-building wireless coverage.
  • AT&T plans to spend between $17 billion and $18 billion on its network in 2009.

Of course, we wonder what happens to some of those older phones that, like iPhone 1.0, work with the older EDGE network. We wanted to ask Ma Bell about the dropped call problems, but the executives are too busy with meetings or talking to reporters who don’t ask tough questions.

There is an error in the slide. HSPA+ should read 20+ Mbps. It currently reads 20+ kbps. The error is regretted.