AT&T to expand its 3G network to more cities

It's adding 1,500 cell locations nationwide

AT&T Inc. plans to expand its third-generation (3G) wireless broadband service to more than 80 additional cities throughout 2008.

That expansion would bring AT&T's 3G coverage to nearly 350 major U.S. markets, including all 100 of the largest cities, the carrier said in a statement today. The initiative will require AT&T to build more than 1,500 additional cell locations nationwide.

The carrier also said it will complete its High Speed Uplink Packet Access-enabled network by midyear, allowing laptops equipped to receive data via HSUPA to more quickly send large files and business applications wirelessly.

AT&T's Web site describes its current 3G network as a Universal Mobile Telecommunications System/High Speed Downlink Packet Access (UMTS/HSDPA) or Broadband Connect network, offering speeds of 400Kbit/sec. to 700Kbit/sec. But in today's announcement, AT&T said it is now delivering downlink speeds of 600Kbit/sec. to 1,400Kbit/sec. and uplink speeds of 500Kbit/sec. to 800Kbit/sec.

Such network speed claims are confusing and somewhat academic, said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates in Northboro, Mass. That's because they do not reflect a network shared by many people, which can slow down data-transfer speeds.

AT&T has been widely criticized by iPhone users who must rely on the carrier's Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE) network, which is much slower than UMTS/HSDPA, with download speeds of 70Kbit/sec. to 135Kbit/sec.

Gold noted that users might be constrained by the slowest network technology when making a voice or data call, simply because network routing technology will choose the most convenient pathway.

In general, AT&T's current network offerings are "a little bit slower" than Verizon Wireless' EVDO-Rev. A network, which is used by laptops equipped with broadband data cards, Gold said. AT&T faces competition from Verizon and Sprint Nextel Corp. for mobile workers interested in using broadband laptop cards, although AT&T has begun selling some HSUPA-capable cards.

Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said that AT&T's announcement today might be intended to support sales of more laptop cards. He also said it signals that AT&T is hoping to support more wireless devices, including a future version of the iPhone. "They don't want iPhone users to use Wi-Fi vs. cellular," he said in an e-mail.

In addition, he said that AT&T realized the biggest complaint of wireless users is the need for more coverage.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at The Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., said the expansion is "what you'd expect, so I wouldn't read too much into it."

AT&T could not be reached for comment on its plans. The network expansion is likely to be welcome news for customers who need faster access in more places, Gold said. "It's a natural progression for AT&T, but the really big growth will be in three to five years when they deploy LTE [Long Term Evolution]," he said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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