AT&T’s LTE: Fooling Some of the People, Some of the Time

According to an official press release AT&T says it will launch LTE services in five U.S. cities this summer, followed by another 10 before year’s end. Though there are no details yet on prices, plans or devices a recent charm offensive by Ma Bell seems to have convinced many in media-land that the introduction of Long Term Evolution services is going to be a great thing for AT&T. I don’t, but then again AT&T doesn’t need to fool me — it just needs to keep a large percentage of its customers from leaving, and trotting out LTE before it’s ready is one way to do that.

I think AT&T launching LTE is kind of like the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the top NBA draft pick — it’s a great thing for both but it doesn’t make either one an instant playoff contender. Unlike main competitor Verizon Wireless or bronze-level challenger Sprint, AT&T by its own admission did not plan well when building out its wireless infrastructure and is now paying the price, to the tune of $39 billion should its planned acquisition of T-Mobile USA go through. In its filings with the FCC AT&T says it needs to buy T-Mobile because it is running out of spectrum assets and has seen unprecendented growth in wireless data use — but the company never blames itself for selling too many phones for its network to handle. Plus, one year ago AT&T execs were telling anyone who would listen that they had all the spectrum they needed. That’s a lot of change in 12 months.

So why would AT&T’s performance suddenly change for the better because it is launching LTE? As a Chicago Cubs fan I know well the optimism that comes with signing a new pitcher or a free-agent home run hitter. But historical frustration happens for a reason, and with no changes at the top — remember, AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega once said his company wouldn’t have any problems handling iPhone usage — it’s unreasonable to think that AT&T will suddenly reverse course and build a powerful new network just because it’s using LTE. Remember, just one year ago AT&T chief technology officer John Donovan was saying that LTE phones in 2011 would be fat bricks that chewed through battery life. Now, he wants to sell you one this summer.

Enhanced Backhaul: Code for getting caught with your network pants down

If there is one thing AT&T does well it is spin bad news in its favor — witness all the media outlets who repeat AT&T’s term about implementing “enhanced backhaul” as something positive; of course we see the term “enhanced backhaul” as code for saying “we got caught with our pants down on our network build and now we need to fix it.”

From here it appears that AT&T’s accelerated LTE launches are chiefly an attempt to keep its current customers from leaving for competitors like Verizon and Sprint, whose 4G offerings are solid and available in multiple markets. Witness AT&T’s botched plan to pitch its HSPA+ service as a 4G equivalent, an effort hamstrung by AT&T first keeping its devices from working at a faster speed and then via an extremely unclear method of revealing where exactly its new HSPA+ services could be found.

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