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Saturday, May 15, 2010, 04:20 pm PT (07:20 pm ET)

AT&T says high-speed HSPA+ will reach 250M Americans in 2010

AT&T this week announced that its high-speed HSPA+ data network upgrade will bring theoretical maximum 14.4Mbps download speeds to more than 250 million Americans by the end of 2010.

The exclusive iPhone carrier in the U.S. plans to cover most of America with its network upgrade, which will double speeds on the company's existing 3G network, AT&T Operations CEO John Stankey disclosed at a Reuters event. According to Engadget, the upgrade could realistically offer most users download speeds between 7.2Mbps and 14.4Mbps.

Currently, the theoretical maximum speed for AT&T's 3G network is 7.2Mbps, thanks to an upgrade that was initiated last year with the launch of the iPhone 3GS. High Speed Packet Access 7.2 rollout began in late 2009, with initial expansion to six major U.S. cities. The theoretical maximum bandwidth is only possible under ideal conditions, and does not mean that most users will attain those speeds on their mobile device.

Last year, AT&T said it planned to offer HSPA 7.2 speeds in 25 of the nation's 30 largest markets by the end of 2010, but this week's announcement — while not offering any specifics on which cities will receive the upgrade — suggests that AT&T is ahead of schedule in deploying the high-speed 3G network. The iPhone 3GS is a HSPA 7.2-compatible phone.

Of course, HSPA+ is just a step on the transition to LTE, or Long Term Evolution, a next-generation 4G data network that AT&T plans to begin deploying in 2011. In February, AT&T revealed that it had partnered with Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson in preparation for next year's commercial deployment of the high-speed 4G network, which will require the installation of new equipment.

The coming transition to LTE networks, of which AT&T competitor Verizon will also be a part, is expected to cost U.S. carriers an estimated $1.78 billion each in the first year alone. AT&T's 2010 network expansions, which include HSPA+ rollout and preparation for LTE, will be a part of between $18 billion and $19 billion in capital expenditures for the company this year.