AT&T's Rinne: HSPA+ to set LTE apart from competitors

ORLANDO, Fla.--HSPA+ technology will be a key differentiator for AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) as it rolls out its LTE network  beginning this year and begins competing with Verizon Wireless' (NYSE:VZ) LTE network that already has a head start in 39 markets.

"We're the only U.S. carrier deploying both HSPA+ and LTE," noted Kris Rinne, senior vice president, architecture and planning with AT&T Mobility, during FierceWireless'  Path to 4G event. "Why is that important? It's about customer experience. It takes years to build out networks. In the early days of LTE when customers move from LTE to HSPA, it will be a very smooth transition--much different than some of the other competitors."

Rinne, who would not take questions regarding AT&T's proposed $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA, was obviously referring to the user experience on Verizon's LTE network. Subscribers roam between LTE and the slower data speeds of CDMA EV-DO. Earlier in the day, Verizon Wireless CTO David Small claimed the move between the two networks has not been an issue for subscribers. "If  you look at the overall customer experience, our CDMA network is extremely reliable, and the velocity at which we are pushing LTE markets, this becomes a non issue."

Nevertheless, Rinne pointed out that AT&T's HSPA+ network is achieving data speeds of about 7 Mbps in the markets where it has the necessary backhaul in place to support those speeds. Rinne said AT&T continues to evaluate dual-carrier MIMO as a way to continually upgrade the HSPA+ network, but said the operator is focused on building out LTE in advance  of those types of advancements to HSPA+.  The operator plans to roll out LTE services commercially by mid-2011.

Rinne also spoke in depth about AT&T's plans for heterogeneous networks. Understanding that LTE's spectral efficiency will only get them so far, AT&T is embracing small-cell network architecture in the form of microcells, distributed antenna systems and picocells at the street level.

"The LTE Advanced standards work includes many of the things required for heterogeneous networks," Rinne said. "We see exciting opportunities to enhance coverage and capacity through small sells. The challenges of constructing, backhaul and interference is something we are working on."

AT&T is proposing to build some 80 new small-antenna tower sites on top of utility poles across downtown Palo Alto, Calif., in a bid to bolster voice and data capacity in areas that experience heavy data traffic.

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