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Tuesday, February 24, 2009, 03:00 am PT (06:00 am ET)

AT&T CEO lays out plans to improve 3G coverage in 2009

Speaking at Mobile World Congress, AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega revealed the company's plans to extend 3G coverage to more cities in the US, improve existing coverage, and incrementally ramp up data speeds to retain the title of the fastest American 3G network.

In an interview conducted by Engadget at the event, de la Vega defended his company's 3G network in comparison to rivals and described how the company worked with handset makers to improve reliability. He specifically cited Apple, noting, "we communicate with Apple and say, you know, if we tweak this it would work better, so they've been very good about working with us and making sure that as we look at things to do the drop calls there, they're going to implement it."

AT&T to complete 850MHz 3G rollout in San Francisco this year

On its end, AT&T has now rolled out 3G service to more than 350 cities. The company is also in the middle of completing a frequency band transition from 1900MHz to 850MHz in several markets. By the end of 2009, de la Vega said, "we'll finish [the 850MHz transition in] San Francisco, we'll finish parts of New York, and then that'll bring the best technology 3G on the best backbone to significantly improve the quality and the coverage for 3G on our network."

The longer wavelength, lower frequency 850MHz band has been growing in popularity among mobile providers because it provides greater coverage area using fewer towers and better penetration through walls and other barriers, such as foliage. AT&T uses both 850MHz and 1900MHz bands for 3G UMTS in the US.

Last June, Kris Rinne, AT&T's Senior Vice President of Architecture and Planning, was cited in an industry press release as saying, "AT&T has delivered HSPA service at 850MHz wherever possible, with more on the way this year as we redeploy additional 850 spectrum previously used for our TDMA network," indicating a continuation of the company's often repeated strategy of deploying additional 850MHz coverage to strengthen its 3G service in the US.

Retaining the title of the fastest 3G network in the US

"We're also looking to improve the speeds of our 3G network," de la Vega said in the interview. "As I mentioned before, we have the infrastructure capability to go to 7.2 [Mbit/s], and we'll have the capability to go 14.4 and 20 in the next couple of years, so I think there's coverage we're going to improve, there's quality we're going to improve, and there's speed that's also going to get improved."

Just as AT&T's 2G GSM network was enhanced with the EDGE upgrade, its parallel 3G UMTS service is being upgraded using HSPA. The current upgrade phase, as defined by the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), is Release 5, which is targeted to reach peak data rates of 14.4 Mbit/s. Verizon Wireless and Sprint both use incompatible 2G CMDA-2000 and 3G EV-DO technologies.

While the rest of the world has largely standardized on UMTS for 3G service rather than CDMA/EV-DO, Verizon plans to join the party over the next couple years with the move to LTE (Long Term Evolution), now under development for specification in 3GPP Release 8. That should finally end the technology divide that has split the US for nearly two decades, although Sprint is moving ahead with plans to build out WiMAX, an entirely different technology based on IEEE 802.16e, a networking specification for mobile, high speed wireless broadband that competes against both 3GPP/GSM and Qualcomm's CDMA standards.

When asked if he was worried by Verizon's need to be "the first to upgrade to LTE before AT&T just because their technology path is at a dead end right now," de la Vega answered, "I think we're much better off to say that they [Verizon] don't have a way to improve the majority of their footprint for the next year, because they're going to have to build a whole new network nationwide. We don't have to build the new network."

"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 [...] so I think for the next couple of years, AT&T will have the best and the fastest 3G network in the country while Verizon and others are continuing to look for what to do with LTE or WiMAX or whatever they decide to do."

"We think that LTE, for us, will be in the 2010, 2011 time frame. 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."

The current iPhone 3G supports downloads up to 3.6Mbit/s, although finding a usable 3G signal on AT&T's network is difficult in many areas, including cities where AT&T reports 3G coverage, such as San Francisco. New phone hardware will eventually be required to take advantage of the faster download speeds made possible through HSPA upgrades, although the improved signal coverage that comes with those upgrades will continue to benefit existing iPhone 3G owners.

Addressing high mobile fees and value in a global downturn

One of the other advantages AT&T has in operating a 3GPP/GSM network is the ability for its customers to use their phones internationally. However, the roaming fees involved with international travel are spectacularly high. Engadget asked, "Do you see more interoperability between, and more communication between international carriers and domestic carriers for roaming and that becoming less of a financial burden?"

"I think," de la Vega answered, "that we continue to work with our international carrier partners to figure out how to have lower roaming costs. We just put in a new plan for the iPhone that lowers some of the international costs for iPhone users, and so we are gonna continue to work to drive those costs down, you can rest assured of that."

Speaking to what customers can expect from AT&T in 2009, de la Vega said, "You're gonna expect us to continue to improve and expand our 3G network, and you're gonna continue to see us deliver great value to customers at a time when the economy is asking our customers, or is driving our customers to seek really good values."