Tweaks to the HSPA network will bring 3G capacity up to 7.2 Mb/s even before AT&T implements next-gen wireless technologies.
AT&T is in the process of doubling the capacity of its 3G networks, using software enhancements to squeeze one last boost in bandwidth from its current generation networks before it begins its migration to evolved 3G and eventually 4G.
AT&T is increasing the downlink capacity on its high-speed packet access (HSPA) from 3.6 megabits per second to 7.2 Mb/s through software upgrades at the base station, said Scott McElroy, AT&T Mobility vice president of technology realization. AT&T currently has the enhanced networks running in two test markets but plans to extend those capabilities to its entire network. Later this year, AT&T plans to start migrating its 3G networks to evolved-HSPA (or HSPA+), which would triple peak speeds.
Theoretically HSPA can support up 14.4 Mb/s of capacity over a 5-MHz downlink, but when the technology was first introduced, commercial equipment wasn't able to meet HSPA's full potential. The results have been a series of iterations in the HSPA standard that operators have been implementing as vendors release both the upgrade modules needed at the base station and the enhanced device chipsets required to support the increased capacities. AT&T, then Cingular, launched its network in 2005, supporting 1.8 Mb/s, but boosted that capacity to 3.6 Mb/s by 2008. Most of the laptop cards and smartphones AT&T sells, including the iPhone, have the silicon necessary to access that additional capacity. AT&T is now in the process of field certifying7.2-Mb/s devices on its two test networks, McElroy said.
The next obvious step would be for AT&T to further upgrade its 3G networks and devices to its full 14.4-Mb/s potential, but McElroy said AT&T will most likely skip the final HSPA iteration for two reasons: There have been technical difficulties implementing the final step, and HSPA+ is now ready for prime time. There's little point in migrating to 14.4 Mb/s if AT&T can go straight to 21 Mb/s, McElroy said. HSPA+ actually encompasses a bevy of upgrades, including evolving to a flat IP core and the introduction of smart antenna technology, but AT&T is focusing on upgrades to the baseband, which will dramatically increase capacity without having to fiddle with the elements on the tower or in the core.
AT&T isn't just adding capacity through upgrades; it's also adding HSPA carriers at many cellsites. "It's being done on a market-by- market basis," McElroy said. "We're adding second and even third carriers according to demand. We're also in the early phases of an 850- MHz overlay." Though the initial 3G network was built over AT&T's PCS spectrum, AT&T has started using its cellular band for expansion, giving its 3G network far more range and the ability to reach into buildings.
McElroy added that AT&T is upgrading its backhaul network, where possible, to handle the increased data traffic resulting from its network upgrades, though McElroy said he could not reveal the exact extent of those efforts. In cases where the AT&T mothership has built fiber to cell sites, AT&T Mobility is taking advantage of its high- bandwidth transport. AT&T is also using microwave backhaul in some cases, and in some areas has moved sites entirely over to carrier Ethernet transport. AT&T PURSUING NEW DATA DEVICES
As AT&T beefs up its network capacity, it's seeking out new categories of data devices beyond smartphones and PC cards. At CTIA Wireless earlier this month, AT&T's president of emerging devices highlighted new data-only gadgets, ranging from digital cameras to e-book readers AT&T was testing and certifying for launching. The first of these new devices were announced at the show: netbooks from Acer, Dell and LG embedded with HSPA and WiFi chips that would connect to both AT&T's 3G and hotspot networks.
Essentially miniature Internet-centric laptops, the netbooks come with3G DataConnect plans, just like its PC Card and embedded laptop services, but as AT&T starts offering more specialized data devices, its billing models will change, Lurie said. A customer won't pay for a $10- to $20-a-month data plan simply to upload a digital photo wirelessly from a camera to a picture frame, Lurie said, but that customer may pay a set nominal fee per photo. These new data models will have to "break some rules," Lurie said, discarding the notion of a steady monthly subscription. "This may be the single biggest opportunity in the wireless industry today going forward: growing incremental revenues," Lurie said.
Sprint was the first operator to test these types of per-transaction billing when it partnered with Amazon to launch the Kindle e-book reader. While the Kindle remains constantly connected to the Sprint EV- DO network, much like a smartphone, the customer never incurs a monthly data charge. In fact, the customer usually isn't even aware of the Sprint network. Whenever he or she purchases a book or a magazine or newspaper subscription from Amazon, the customer is billed only for the purchase, while Amazon compensates Sprint for use of its data network. Verizon, too, has launched its own open developer program to encourage new types of devices and business models on its 3G networks, though the results of those efforts haven't been so public. Most of the devices the program has certified so far have been machine-to- machine devices used in industry, and the few consumer devices on the network are being sold by third-party service providers.
Lurie didn't offer any specifics on what types of devices besides the netbooks will come out of the program, but he said AT&T is working with multiple vendors big and small to certify their products. "We're talking to OEMs coming out of the garage with duct tape on their devices, and we're talking to $100 billion companies," Lurie said. THE ROAD TO LTE
While AT&T will continue to upgrade and expand its 3G network into the foreseeable future, AT&T is taking the initial steps toward 4G. McElroy said AT&T is now in the process of selecting vendors for its future long-term evolution (LTE) network and plans to have its first test markets up in 2010.
When LTE goes commercial in 2011, it will initial be a very data- focused network, utilizing LTE's high capacity for bandwidth-intensive devices like laptops, but eventually AT&T plans to scale LTE support down to handsets, extending voice services to the network using VoIP.
AT&T will use both its 700 MHz and advanced wireless services (AWS) spectrum to launch LTE, McElroy said. Even if AT&T fills up both bands, it still has reams of cellular and PCS spectrum it could eventually allot to LTE if demand for 4G broadband balloon. Once voice starts migrating over to LTE, AT&T's 2G and 3G channels could be repurposed for LTE.
"We feel very good about our spectrum position," McElroy said. "And we say that with full understanding of what the data demands will be."
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