4G World: AT&T Defends Slow Move to 4G

4G WORLD, CHICAGO — Since panels with great speakers are coming at us back to back, we’ll just give you some bullet points of speaker presentations today. We’ll have a lot more to say about the unusually frank and open talk from Kris Rinne, senior vice president of architecture at AT&T, who was the leadoff keynoter here Tuesday. The bottom line — though Rinne tried to claim that AT&T “won’t be left behind” when it comes to moving to 4G, the details of her talk showed Ma Bell backing away from some previous wireless goals while moving very conservatively to higher speeds.

For those wondering when AT&T’s network performance is going to get better — not very soon, and not in too many markets. According to Rinne, AT&T is only planning on deploying its 7.2 Mbps HSPA service in six U.S. cities in 2009 (Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Charlotte, N.C., and Houston), and 19 more in 2010. To make use of the new service, customers have to upgrade to a 7.2-capable device — like the iPhone 3GS or the netbooks with embedded 3G the company is now selling. Rinne said there would be “additional devices” available later this year.

Rinne said AT&T now has no firm plans to move to faster speeds of HSPA, known as HSPA+ — apparently refuting promises made last year by AT&T’s Ralph de la Vega. Rinne’s roadmap has AT&T deploying HSPA 7.2, followed by Long Term Evolution (LTE) rollouts. As for LTE, AT&T is sticking with earlier plans for trials in late 2010, and commercial availability a year or two later. Voice over LTE, Rinne said, wouldn’t happen until the “2012 time frame.”

In terms of making current networks better — Rinne said AT&T is about 90 percent of the way toward completing its task of “re-farming” its 850 MHz spectrum (previously used for earlier cellular technologies) for use on its 3G network. And in what has to be a first from AT&T, Rinne actually told us after her talk how much spectrum AT&T has at that band — “Between 25 Mhz and 50 MHz, depending on the market,” she said.

More spectrum geekout: Rinne said AT&T was testing 5 MHz and 10 MHz channels for LTE, but hadn’t decided on a final plan yet. (The bigger the channel size, the faster the available download and upload speeds.) She also said that AT&T would use not just its 700 MHz spectrum for LTE, but also its AWS spectrum — perhaps a concession to the growing idea that Ma Bell doesn’t really have the spectrum depth to handle its expected network loads. (Much more on this idea later!)

AT&T SVP Kris Rinne

HSPA Slide from Rinne’s presentation

(all photos copyright Paul Kapustka/Sidecut Reports, 2009)

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