AT&T's next generation network strategy has followed a switchback course. Earlier this year it moved from a straight-to-LTE policy to embrace HSPA+ in between, but has so far lagged well behind T-Mobile in the HSPA version it supports, stopping at 14Mbps.
Now it has put the spotlight back on LTE, and plans to make its first commercial launch as early as mid-2011, about a year earlier than once expected, and only six months or so behind Verizon Wireless.
The carrier would look to cover 70 million to 75 million POPS by the end of next year, which could help make the US one of the best covered nations in the world with mobile broadband - both Clearwire and Verizon have ambitious coverage targets for 2011, and newcomer LightSquared could even have gone live with its first services in mobile satellite spectrum.
By the end of this year, Clearwire aims to cover 120 million POPS and Verizon 100 million, putting both well ahead of AT&T's schedule.
Speaking at a Bank of America/Merrill Lynch conference last week, AT&T's president John Stankey said AT&T had embarked on network design. The firm had previously said it would not move beyond isolated trials until a handset and applications ecosystem was well evolved.
Now AT&T apparently believes a delay until 2012 would leave it too far behind Clearwire/Sprint and Verizon in terms of high value broadband offerings. In perception terms, too, this would be damaging, given that AT&T's 3G network has been heavily criticized for the past couple of years for erratic performance under the strain of rising smartphone and mobile data usage.
Stankey said AT&T's timing would put it just ahead of the global LTE curve, which he expects to gain real momentum by 2015, when he predicts 300 million subscribers worldwide.
But he insisted mid-2011 would give enough time to create a “robust experience.
“Whether it's the battery life, the quality of service on the device, the applications that come with it, the form factor of the device-all those things have to play with the network.” he said.
Stankey said that AT&T had two LTE test markets running, in Dallas and Baltimore, working with previously announced suppliers Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent (also providing Verizon's LTE access network). AT&T will spend about $700 million this year on LTE infrastructure.
This article originally appeared in Rethink Wireless