AT&T Works To Catch Up on LTE and Abuses the Term 4G

AT&T (s t) laid out plans today for an accelerated march to its Long Term Evolution network while bulking up its existing network to handle 4G speeds. The No. 2 wireless carrier said at a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show it will begin deploying LTE by mid-year and plans on having the network “largely complete” by 2013.

However, even as it proclaimed its commitment to LTE, AT&T jumped on the 4G hype bandwagon touting “4G speeds” on its 3G network, a bit of marketing mumbo jumbo it had tweaked T-Mobile for last year. See our perspective on the 4G marketing hype here. AT&T said it has upgraded its network almost entirely to HSPA+ and is now in the process of building out the backhaul necessary to achieve faster speeds. It plans on having two-thirds of its network upgraded by the end of the year. The company said users in upgraded markets are seeing 6 megabits per second download speeds.

It looks like AT&T, realizing it is a bit late to the game with LTE when compared to Verizon, which launched LTE to 100 million people in December, is deploying a mix of hype and new information to burnish its image. So it has given a definitive date for the full deployment of its LTE network (2013) and started hiding its current lack of an LTE network by flinging around the phrase 4G like Glee hides its lack of plot developments behind those crappy guest star episodes.

On the hardware side, AT&T is launching 20 phones this year that will achieve what it calls “4G speeds” on the HSPA+ network. However, of those 20 phones it’s unclear how many will work on its LTE network, especially given that one of its executives said LTE as a technology wouldn’t be mature enough for a wide variety of handsets until 2014. Seth Bloom, an AT&T spokesman, says some fo the 20 devices will support LTE. AT&T is also launching 12 new Android devices including breakout handsets like Motorola’s (s mmi) Atrix 4G, which sports a dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM and can turn into a laptop with a nifty docking station. Executives from Samsung and HTC also showed off the Samsung Infuse 4G and HTC Inspire 4G respectively. There will be HSPA+ tablets and modems also offered in the second half of this year.

AT&T was the quietest of the four carriers on its 4G plans. Sprint has been raving about its WiMAX network while Verizon came on strong at the end of last year with the launch of its LTE network covering 38 markets and 110 million people. T-Mobile has taken to calling its HSPA+ network 4G in ads. AT&T doens’t seem to be trying to clear things up.

And that may be by design. By saying it will offer 4G speeds, first with HSPA+ and then LTE, it’s got a continuous story that helps it compete this year against its rivals while it gets to a full LTE network by 2013, when it will catch up to Verizon. The latest plans coincide with AT&T’s recent announcement that will buy spectrum from Qualcomm (s qcom)that it will use for 4G deployments.

AT&T is showing it’s poised to compete in 4G, as it should. With Verizon getting the iPhone soon, AT&T knows it needs to step up its 4G network story to try and keep pace with its rival. And with the big roll out of Android devices, it’s showing that it has a plan for life after the iPhone.

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