AT&T's faster 3G network could signal video chat coming with new iPhone

Faster data speeds would be welcomed regardless of video, however

If the next iPhone model supports video chat, as some rumors say it will, AT&T Inc.'s plan to expand to a faster wireless network called HSPA 7.2 later in the year would enrich the experience of iPhone users who take advantage of that feature.

And even if video chat is not coming in the expected July release of the next-generation iPhone, faster network speeds with the 3G upgrade would still be welcome news.

An AT&T spokeswoman wouldn't comment today about whether the new iPhone would offer HSPA 7.2 support, although she said "multiple" HSPA 7.2-compatible laptop cards and smartphones will be introduced later in 2009. AT&T is the exclusive carrier for Apple Inc.'s iPhone in the U.S.

Some analysts said that they believe AT&T's HSPA 7.2 plans are part of a general trend among wireless carriers to support smartphone wireless traffic of all kinds, and don't necessarily make room for video chat. But it's inevitable that video streaming will keep growing, even if the video isn't real-time and moving in two directions, as is the case with video chat.

"Smartphones are growing like crazy, and the networks are rushing like crazy to upgrade to meet the choking demand," said independent analyst Jeffrey Kagan.

Some analysts said they don't believe a video chat feature on the next iPhone would be used very much. However, based on the usage trends of some other phones with that capability, Cisco Systems Inc. and Polycom Inc. are expecting a burgeoning market for wireless video chat on handhelds.

One CIO who supports a large college IT infrastructure endorsed the concept of video chat on the iPhone. "One feature I would love to have [in the next iPhone] is two-way videoconferencing," said Jorge Mata, CIO for the Los Angeles Community College District, by e-mail.

"You would have a small kickstand in the back of the device and you could set it down on a table and have a videoconference (Skype-like) with others," he wrote. "That would be great for collaboration, especially if it ties into enterprise unified messaging systems."

If the theoretical speed of HSPA is 7.2Mbit/sec., as AT&T says, the new network would help video chat, but it's not clear whether that speed is sufficient for a quality video chat experience, especially if there are many users on a single cell tower.

Earlier this year, Polycom CEO Robert Hagerty described ways that his company has enabled videoconferencing via a Palm Inc. handheld with Ericsson networking in Italy, although he didn't reveal the network speed. He said Polycom's technology supports high-quality laptop videoconferencing inside airports over Wi-Fi, which tops out at 54Mbit/sec. for 802.11g wireless networks.

So Wi-Fi will still be faster than HSPA 7.2 by far, although AT&T also touts its prowess in that realm, boasting that it supports 20,000 Wi-Fi hot spots. Publicly, the question of whether AT&T is getting ready for video chat is still a subject of speculation, but realistically it's probably a matter of when, not if, the carrier will support that capability.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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