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iPad success tied to AT&T 3G upgrades

Will the carrier be ready for the iPad 3G's April launch?

February 2, 2010 03:22 PM ET

Computerworld - AT&T Inc. last week boasted that it would be ready to handle demand for the iPad's wireless connectivity through use of its Wi-Fi and 3G capabilities and a $2 billion increase in network improvements in 2010.

Yet, analysts noted, it's still unclear how well AT&T will manage the iPad's most demanding applications, including streaming video, especially when they are put to use by thousands of users in congested areas.

A specific reason for concern about AT&T's iPad readiness is how fast AT&T can upgrade its 3G capabilities, which will involve installing fiber-optic connections -- called backhaul -- to cell towers and sites where cellular antennas are affixed. Backhaul is a term for the network segments that connect cell sites or other remote equipment to a network core where massive switching gear routes data and calls.

AT&T acknowledged that it needs to install the fiber-optic backhaul to provide the faster wireless speeds of the HSPA 7.2 specification. The High-Speed Packet Access spec, which is sometimes referred to as 3.5G, will bring theoretical throughput to 7.2Mbit/sec. -- many times faster than existing 3G speeds. Realistically, HSPA 7.2 will be much slower, however. AT&T executives have said wireless HSPA 7.2 theoretical speeds of 7.2 mbit/sec. will double existing 3G theoretical speeds of 3.6 Mbit/sec., suggesting that existing average 3G speeds found in independent tests could be doubled to less than 1 Mbit/sec. with HSPA 7.2, depending on the location and conditions.

"Faster 3G speeds will come as AT&T combines the new [HSPA 7.2 software] technology with enhanced cell site backhaul connections over the course of 2010 and 2011," an AT&T spokeswoman said in an e-mail to Computerworld.

The AT&T statement clarifies what many reports stated in January and last week: that AT&T had made a nationwide software upgrade to HSPA 7.2, implying that the faster speeds for the iPad were already available. In fact, the backhaul installation is also required, and that work is only in its early stages.

Just how quickly can AT&T build the backhaul connections? Initial deployments have been made in six U.S. cities -- Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Miami, the AT&T spokeswoman said. Some cell sites have seen fiber backhaul completed and have been turned on, but she didn't provide further details. In a single city, there could be thousands of cell sites.

Throughout 2010, more cities will be added to the list of those getting backhaul upgrades, the spokeswoman said. "We anticipate the majority of our mobile data traffic will be carried over the expanded fiber-based HSPA-capable backhaul by the end of this year, with deployment continuing to expand in 2011," she added.

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