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AT&T expects to launch first VoLTE smartphone this year

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HOLLYWOOD BEACH, Fla.--AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) expects to launch its first Voice over LTE smartphone by the end of the year as a prelude to a wider VoLTE deployment in 2014, according to a senior AT&T executive.

Krish Prabhu, the president of AT&T Labs, said during a keynote appearance here at the PCIA wireless infrastructure conference that "I do believe there might be a VoLTE-compliant device for the holidays this year." He said AT&T is conducting network upgrade testing for VoLTE right now and that the technology will generally appear in the network next year. He said VoLTE will power an HD voice experience for customers who are using VoLTE handsets at both ends of calls.

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) also expects to launch its first VoLTE handset by year-end, with a wider commercial launch of VoLTE in the first half of 2014. Sprint (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) have been more circumspect about when they plan to deploy VoLTE. T-Mobile already offers what it has dubbed an HD Voice service.

Prabhu also said that AT&T will conduct a trial of carrier aggregation technology later this year, referring to the technology available through LTE Advanced specifications that lets carriers meld together disparate spectrum bands for wider channels and more bandwidth. He did not say which spectrum bands would be involved in the trial, but indicated it would likely involve high-band and low-band spectrum. AT&T's spectrum holdings stretch from 700 MHz to 2.3 GHz.

The AT&T Labs chief also said that AT&T's entire LTE network architecture is ready to be upgraded to LTE Advanced Release 10 and beyond via software patches. "All of the features that come from LTE Advanced will be software upgrades--assuming the vendors deliver what they promised," he said. Alcatel-Lucent (NASDAQ: ALU) and Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) are AT&T's primary LTE infrastructure partners.

During his appearance, Prabhu reiterated AT&T's plans to cover 270 million POPs with LTE by year-end (up from around 240 million now). He said the carrier will complete its initial LTE deployment by 2014, covering 300 million POPs (a milestone Verizon has said it has already crossed). As part of AT&T's Project Velocity IP network upgrade program, the carrier plans to deploy 10,000 new macro sites by the end of 2015, which Prabhu said would fill in the gaps in AT&T's coverage. Prabhu also noted AT&T will deploy 1,000 Distributed Antenna Systems and 40,000 small cells by the end of 2015. Most of the small cells will be metrocells, he said, aimed at large residential complexes and businesses.

Prabhu said currently data traffic is, on average, six times the amount of voice traffic on AT&T's wireless network. "It continues to give me headaches just because this sort of data growth, this sort of usage growth, this sort of traffic growth is unprecedented in my 35 years," in the infrastructure business, he said.

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