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Wednesday, May 14, 2008, 08:20 am PT (11:20 am ET)

AT&T to boost 3G speeds more than fivefold by 2009

AT&T said Wednesday it plans to boost the speed of its 3G wireless network to speeds of 20 megabits per second in 2009, paving the way for over-the-air downloads that are more than five times faster than what customers can achieve today.

Speaking at the Morgan Stanley's annual Communications Conference, the company's mobility chief Ralph de la Vega said engineers already have a version of AT&T's HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) 3G network up and running in the labs at speeds of 7.2 megabits per second, or approximately double the theoretical throughput of its existing network.

"It's clear to us that we are in the very early stages of what I would call a wireless data revolution," he said.

AT&T plans to transition to HSPA release 7 sometime in 2009, which will deliver even bigger speeds "exceeding 20 megabits per second," according to the executive. He said the upgrade will require few if any hardware modifications to the company's infrastructure and will instead be a smooth transition achieved largely through a software upgrade to its electronics.

De la Vega also said that his firm has "a clear and logical path" to 700MHz 4G access via the Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard in the 2010 timeframe which should again increase speeds fivefold to nearly 100 megabits per second.

"[The] steps to get there are very logical and they're all building on the same GSM technology that we've been using for a while," he explained. "LTE will allow for backwards compatibility to GSM and HSPA, which is a great benefit to customers. And our path forward to LTE allows us to get there step-by-step, with interim steps that will deliver more and more speeds everyday."

De la Vega was similarly excited about AT&T's growth opportunities in the smart phone market given upcoming handsets from Apple and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, noting that just 16 percent of the company's postpaid customers currently own integrated devices.

"So upside on further penetration is substantial," he said.