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Friday, March 20, 2009, 01:00 pm PT (04:00 pm ET)

Apple's 2009 iPhone to support faster 3G networks - report

A new report indicates that the next iPhone hardware release will offer "a significantly faster Internet connection," harmonizing with previous coverage of AT&T's network upgrade plans.

The posting, by Dan Frommer of Silicon Alley Insider, only cited "a plugged-in source in the mobile industry," and the only speculated about what that might mean for new iPhone hardware.

However, at last year's Morgan Stanley Communications Conference, AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega outlined the company's plans for upgrading its US networks during a presentation to atendees. He commented on the matter again this February in an interview with Engadget.

Handset and mobile network speeds

After describing the company's ongoing efforts to expand use of its 850MHz spectrum to strengthen 3G reception in cities, de la Vega said, "we're also looking to improve the speeds of our 3G network. As I mentioned before, we have the infrastructure capability to go to 7.2 [Mbit/s]."

The current iPhone 3G's hardware only supports mobile downloads up to 3.6Mbit/s. A phone hardware upgrade would be required to take advantage of the new level of 7.2Mbit/s HSPA service AT&T is now provisioning.

The original iPhone was similarly linked to an enhanced rollout of EDGE service, and last year's iPhone 3G stressed AT&T's fledgling 3G network, which was also bolstered in conjunction with Apple's launch. Apple itself installed 3G transmitters in its retail stores.

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HSPA, HSPA+ and LTE

How fast this year's new iPhone will get actually depends upon the radio components Apple can source. AT&T's long term plans include an upgrade to 3GPP Release 7 (HSPA+) and later Release 8, also known as LTE (Long Term Evolution). LTE refactors UMTS service as an entirely IP-based, fourth generation network based on orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing technology.

"We've already got HSPA [networks built out] and when we go to Release 7," de la Vega said, "we can go all the way up to 20 megabits per second." Some UMTS networks in other countries already support 20Mbit/s HSPA+ Release 7 (also referred to as 3.5G), and many have supported 7.2Mbit/s HSPA for some time, making it straightforward for Apple to launch a new iPhone with support for 7.2Mbit/s HSPA mobile networks, if not the even faster 20Mbit/s HSPA+.

"We are, right now, capable of taking our network and improving the speed of it up to 20 megabits per second. So we think that carries us through the next year, year and a half, then I think you begin to look at LTE as the next step [in the 2010-2011 time frame]," de la Vega said.

[Update and clarification: As originally noted at first publication, the current iPhone 3G's hardware only supports mobile downloads up to 3.6Mbit/s.

According to an interview GearLog conducted with Apple's Greg Joswiak, the iPhone 3G uses "the HSDPA 3.6 high-speed network standard, which is faster than the HSDPA 1.8 standard previously reported."

Wikipedia's notes on AT&T's currently deployed US 3G networks: "Speeds up to 7.2 Mbit/s are available in most markets. Areas that use UMTS instead of HSUPA as the uplink protocol are limited to 1.8 Mbit/s speeds."

An earlier update to this article indicated that the current iPhone 3G used Infineon's X-GOLD 608 platform and could apparently support faster speeds, based on comments made by iFixIt, which correctly identified a power management chip designed to be used with that platform, but did not state that all the platform's chips (which can support 7.2Mbit/s networks) were being used in the iPhone 3G. They apparently are not. ]