AT&T's LTE network to launch Sunday in 5 cities

Carrier expects to have faster wireless service in 15 cities by year's end

AT&T on Sunday will officially launch its faster LTE wireless service in five cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

With the Sept. 18 launch, AT&T will meet the goal it announced in May to have LTE up and running in those five markets by the end of the summer -- but just barely, since fall begins Sept. 23. On Friday, following comments made by AT&T CFO John Stephens at a Merrill Lynch conference, a spokesman confirmed via email that the official launch will occur Sunday.

The spokesman also confirmed that AT&T still plans to offer LTE in 15 cities, including the first five, by year's end. The list of additional cities has not been officially announced. In all, service in those 15 cities would cover 70 million Americans, AT&T has said.

AT&T's staunchest rival, Verizon Wireless, launched its LTE service in late 2010, and this week said it now covers 143 markets with the addition of 26 markets on Thursday. Verizon said its LTE service is now available to more than half the population of the United States.

Verizon has stated that its LTE network supports average data rates of 5Mbps to 12Mbps for downloads and 2Mbps to 5Mbps for uploads. AT&T hasn't recently said what level of performance users can expect on its LTE network, although analysts say the speeds should be similar to Verizon's. An AT&T spokesman on Friday said LTE data rates "can vary."

AT&T also has said its HSPA+ network qualifies as 4G service and will work where LTE service is not available. AT&T earlier said it will deliver LTE over 700MHz spectrum and 1700/2100 MHz AWS spectrum to offer strong coverage with high capacity.

AT&T already offers three LTE-ready devices, including the HTC Jetstream tablet. The 10.1 tablet runs Android 3.1 and sells for $700 for a two-year contract. AT&T also sells the Elevate 4G hotspot and a Momentum 4G modem for LTE.

In what many observers see as a strategy aimed at curbing demand for data service, AT&T will charge $50 for 5GB of LTE data service per month, according to the carrier's spokesman. Each additional gigabyte will cost $10.

AT&T has said it will have 20 4G devices available by year's end, some of them running on LTE.

AT&T's first LTE smartphone is expected to be the HTC Holiday, also called the Raider, although the carrier has not announced the device. According to BGR and other websites, the Holiday will be a 4.5-in. touchscreen smartphone with a 1.2GHz dual-core processor running Android 2.3.4. It has also been reported that the device has delivered download speeds of 29Mbps on AT&T's LTE network in Dallas. However, it isn't surprising that speeds would be high on that network, because it's likely to be relatively uncrowded since the service hasn't officially launched in Dallas yet.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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