Users note faster EDGE network speeds ahead of iPhone launch

But the good times and fast speeds may not last as customers come online

Users reported substantial speed increases in AT&T's data network last night and today, fueling speculation that long-rumored infrastructure upgrades have paid off just as the iPhone goes on sale.

AT&T wireless customers using non-Apple cell phones began citing a bump in throughput on the EDGE-based data network last night, posting test results online at places such as HowardForums. Most reported speeds of 200Kbit/sec., more than double of earlier speeds.

EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) advertises in the field download speeds of between 70Kbit/sec. to 135Kbit/sec., although its technical top end is 384Kbit/sec. Many of the users noting the impressive increases said that before last night, 70Kbit/sec. was the maximum for them on AT&T. Even the more than 200Kbit/sec. download speeds being reported, however, are a far cry from the much faster 3G data networks operated by the likes of Verizon.

"Maybe you're seeing that $50,000,000 they invested into their data network handling capabilities specifically for the iPhone launch?" posited one user identified as "EstorilM" on HowardForums.

Although AT&T has bragged of spending $50 million this year to get "iReady," a term company spokesman Mark Siegel used today, chatter among iPhone wannabe-buyers has used the phrase "Operation Fine EDGE," reportedly an internal code name for back-end updates to boost data performance.

Siegel denied that AT&T has hit an "on switch" that increases EDGE speeds. "We've been enhancing EDGE since we first introduced it," he said. "We're not making any different performance claims today." Instead, he stressed that several factors could combine to give a user, or even several, a "burst that can exceed the normal" speeds on AT&T.

EDGE performance played a big part in early reviews of Apple Inc.'s iPhone, the new mobile phone/video iPod/Internet communicator the company launched at 6 p.m. today. Across the board, the reviews bemoaned the slow browsing speed whenever out of range of a Wi-Fi network. It was easily the least attractive part of the iPhone-AT&T package.

Even Apple CEO Steve Jobs isn't entirely satisfied with AT&T's performance. "EDGE is good, but you'd like it to be faster," he told The New York Times (registratation required). Both he and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson also downplayed the impact of EDGE on iPhone purchases and after-sale customer satisfaction, and suggested that much faster local Wi-Fi networks would pick up any browsing speed slack.

"People are in areas with Wi-Fi much more than they think," Jobs said in a Q&A posted by USA Today earlier today.

The speed increase may only be temporary, however, since AT&T's data network is, as with other mobile carriers, a shared resource. Performance might show a smart increase if additional capacity had been added, for example, but the number of users stayed the same.

That's what AT&T hinted was happening. "Absolutely, we've added capacity" to account for the expected influx of new subscribers this weekend as the iPhone goes on sale, said AT&T's Siegel. "We've spent $16 billion overall in the last two years to improve all-around capacity, and $50 million to get the EDGE network 'iReady,'" he added. "We want to make sure we have enough capacity for the iPhone."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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