AT&T's CTO defends carrier's network, strategy

SAN DIEGO--AT&T's CTO John Donovan used his keynote appearance at the CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment here to boast about his carrier's network, essentially using his chance in the limelight to defend the nation's No. 2 carrier against a growing range of critics picking at AT&T's network capacity constraints and potentially laggard upgrade plans.

AT&T CTO John donovan at ctia"I'm well aware of the press coverage," Donovan said, apparently referencing the large and growing number of news articles highlighting customer complaints of AT&T's network--primarily iPhone users. AT&T Mobility is the exclusive carrier for the iPhone. Said Donovan: "I don't plan our networks based on blogs."

"AT&T understands the wireless data customer better than any other," Donovan said, adding that the carrier is "working incredibly hard to make [the customer experience] a great one."

AT&T has previously publicly acknowledged the growing amount of traffic generated by smartphone users, primarily iPhone users, and the resulting strain that traffic has placed on its network. Donovan reiterated AT&T's plan to "stay ahead of customer demand."

During his address, Donovan provided statistics to highlight the dramatic increases in consumer data demand. He said AT&T has seen its wireless data traffic grow by a factor of 18 during the past two and a half years, while voice traffic has only grown by a factor of two. He said the carrier's wireless data traffic has increased 4,932 percent during the past dozen quarters.

"I know what you're thinking: iPhone. And you're right, but only partially right," Donovan said, explaining that Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices and messaging-centric feature phones have also contributed to the increase in traffic.

And he offered an interesting tidbit: "The Pandora and XM applications on the iPhone are two of the highest traffic drivers on our network."

Donovan then sought to highlight the carrier's response to the increase in demand. He said AT&T spent $38 billion on its wireless and wireline network and support systems last year. He also trumpeted AT&T's network upgrade plans, which include launching HSPA 7.2 in a half dozen top markets by the end of this year, and expanding it to 25 of the top 30 U.S. markets by the second quarter of 2010. As for LTE, Donovan said the carrier would launch the network technology in 2011 on its 700 MHz spectrum, which he said covers 87 percent of the U.S. population.

Donovan also offered some pointed criticisms of AT&T's main rival (and the nation's largest wireless carrier) Verizon Wireless. Although he never mentioned Verizon by name, he said that "some carriers will have to deal with the open-access provisions in the C-Block" of the 700 MHz band with their LTE buildouts. Verizon Wireless purchased much of the 700 MHz C-Block spectrum during last year's FCC auction, airwaves that carry open-access stipulations. Further, Donovan said that AT&T's plan to wait until 2011 to deploy LTE (Verizon said it expects to have 25 to 30 commercial LTE markets up and running by the end of 2010) will ensure a suitable number of devices available for the network technology. Donovan also said that a 2011 LTE deployment will guarantee that the carrier's network and available devices will adhere to the 3GPP's official LTE standard, implying that Verizon's deployment would not.

Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson addressed Donovan's attack: "It's worth noting that by the time they finish their 3G network buildout in 2011, which Mr. Donovan noted in his keynote this morning, we'll already have launched at least 25-30 markets with 4G LTE. That will make a smoking hot 4G ad campaign continuing the theme: 'There's a MAP for that,'" Nelson said, referring to Verizon's latest ad campaign attacking AT&T.

Nonetheless, Donovan appeared sure of his carrier's position in the market. "AT&T's marketing timing is going to be right," he said.

Interestingly, during his keynote address, Donovan did briefly address the continuing brouhaha over FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's push to impose net neutrality regulations on wireless networks. Donovan said the dramatic increases in data demand on AT&T's network showed that the carrier should be allowed to manage data-hungry applications on its network. AT&T has vehemently argued against net neutrality stipulations for wireless.

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