AT&T will launch at least one LTE smartphone by year-end

AT&T Mobility's (NYSE:T) highly anticipated LTE launch is still expected to occur this summer, but the company won't debut its first LTE smartphone until closer to the end of the year.

Speaking at the Oppenheimer Technology and Communications Conference today, Pete Ritcher, senior vice president of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets, said that the company is on track to roll out LTE in 15 markets covering 70 million POPs by year-end. The company will launch LTE on a market-by-market basis, covering its core markets first, and will initially offer LTE data cards. "We won't wait to get 50 million POPs before we turn it up," Ritcher said.

John Stankey, the president of AT&T's business solutions unit, in May told investors at a Barclay Capital conference that the company's first five LTE markets would be Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

Ritcher touted the fact that AT&T customers will fall back to HSPA+ speeds when outside of the company's LTE coverage area. "We are the only carrier with LTE and HSPA+. When you don't have LTE you will fall back to faster speeds than our competitors," he said. 

Customers using Verizon Wireless' (NYSE:VZ) LTE network fall back to the company's EV-DO network, which does provide slower speeds than HSPA+. However, Verizon now has LTE service live in 102 markets and will expand to 175 markets covering 185 million POPs by year-end. Verizon sold 1.2 million LTE devices in the second quarter, up from 500,000 in the first quarter.

Despite Verizon's LTE leadership, Ritcher said that AT&T doesn't feel the need to rush to deploy the technology. Instead, he said that AT&T decided to get more out of its HSPA+ network by increasing the speeds of HSPA+ and waiting for LTE handsets to mature before launching its LTE service.

Interestingly, Ritcher said AT&T does believe that as new and existing customers migrate to the company's LTE network to get faster speeds and the newest devices, AT&T will see less congestion on its 3G network. "We will offload traffic to the spectrum for LTE and it will help with the performance of our 3G network," he said.

He also touted AT&T's backhaul upgrades, noting that 54 percent of the company's traffic is on its enhanced backhaul, which is primarily Ethernet. He added that in certain markets such as San Francisco, Dallas and Chicago, about 90 percent of the carrier's traffic uses the enhanced backhaul, which improves data download speeds to the 6 Mbps range.

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