AT&T's push of iPad as Wi-Fi device raises questions over 3G upgrades

With some AT&T users critical of iPhone's 3G service, the carrier seems to be pushing Wi-Fi instead

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson's comment this week that he expects the iPad to be used mainly as a "Wi-Fi-driven product" rather than over AT&T's 3G cellular network bolsters the view that AT&T's 3G network and upgrades won't fully support the bandwidth hungry iPad.

"I think many users would find 3G for the iPad less than a wonderful experience," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "3G is just not there for most intensive multimedia apps due to bandwidth restrictions and latency issues."

Stephenson said at an investors conference Tuesday that "my expectation is that there's not going to be a lot of people out there looking for another subscription," and that the iPad tablet would be primarily a "Wi-Fi driven device."

His comment raised interest because it goes slightly further than what Chief Financial Officer Rick Lindner said during AT&T's January earnings call, that the iPad will be used "a substantial amount of time in a Wi-Fi environment."

At the time of the Jan. 27 iPad announcement , Apple touted the value of the 3G network, partly because it would be upgraded to HSPA 7.2, with Apple citing theoretical top download speeds of up to 7.2 Mbit/sec. Apple added a footnote to its press release that the speeds would work "where HSPA is available."

In early February, AT&T said that it needed fiber-optic backhaul connections to cellular towers to bring the full HSPA 7.2 online, and that the work was only in the early stages. Initial deployments had been made in six U.S. cities, where each city can have thousands of cell towers.

Analysts couldn't say for certain whether Stephenson was indicating that HSPA 7.2 upgrade won't be sufficiently ready to support the iPad, but noted that AT&T has been scorned for insufficient network support for the iPhone and that it also wants to support its own network of 20,000-plus Wi-Fi hot spots.

Stephenson's statement was also "wishful thinking because AT&T does not want another iPhone-like fiasco with its 3G network, and one way to avoid that is to keep the bandwidth hogs off the 3G network," Gold said. "IPads will likely use far more bandwidth than smartphones."

Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner Inc. said that Stephenson could be hoping to take advantage of AT&T's Wi-Fi networks, which are used in homes and businesses. "They will use a variety of technologies," Redman said.

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@matthamblen or subscribe to . His e-mail address is .

Read more about wireless networking in Computerworld's Wireless Networking Knowledge Center.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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