Will T-Mobile USA become the dark horse mobile broadband leader?

Two surprising pieces of information came out of the 4G World Congress last week: First, AT&T Mobility revealed a mobile broadband strategy that no longer involves milking its HSPA network but instead a more aggressive move to LTE--a tune that has changed from just five months ago.

Second, T-Mobile USA, which previously lagged its competitors by a significant margin in rolling out 3G, announced an aggressive strategy for HSPA+ that could put the operator into the driver's seat by 2010.

Last week, Kris Rinne, AT&T's senior vice president of architecture and planning, spelled out a network upgrade plan that now doesn't include HSPA+, which bumps peak data speeds to 21 Mbps. Originally the operator had a plan to move to HSPA, which offers peak data rates of 7.2 Mbps, and then milk the network some more by deploying HSPA+ before it moved to LTE in 2011. Rinne said AT&T will continue to look at HSPA+ but has no plans to deploy it as it looks to proceed directly to LTE in 2010.

Moreover, it's likely the operator's plan for HSPA itself (the 7.2 Mbps kind) has slowed (AT&T has never previously given specifics of its HSPA plans, only to say it would be widely deployed). Just six markets will be HSPA-enabled by the end of this year, while a total of 25 out of the country's largest 30 markets will have HSPA by the end of 2010. And 90 percent of the network will be HSPA-enabled by the end of 2011.

Back in April, AT&T said the HSPA 7.2 Mbps upgrade would happen throughout its entire network, followed by HSPA+ and LTE in 2011. Of course, that was before the carrier's acknowledgment that it is straining to keep pace with the rapidly growing demand for mobile data, largely fueled by Apple's iPhone. And Verizon Wireless is promising an aggressive LTE rollout in 2010 in 30 markets. HSPA+ may be a software upgrade but it also requires operators to deploy MIMO technology to achieve the higher data speeds, which adds network cost. Some operators reckon that if they have to spend, they might as well spend on LTE--especially if competitors have an aggressive LTE plan too.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile USA's Neville Ray, senior vice president of the carrier's engineering and operations, said the operator plans to have HSPA+ up and running by 2010 on a nationwide basis, which could make it the operator with the highest data speeds in the largest footprint. The irony is that T-Mobile was significantly late to the 3G game. While it has a weaker footprint today, the operator has indicated that it expects to cover 200 million pops by year-end, adding an additional 100 cities to its coverage. In August, the operator said it covered about 176 cities and 121 million people with its 3G network.

While T-Mobile has plans for LTE, Ray isn't giving a timeframe for its rollout, preferring to watch how HSPA+ is developing. T-Mobile doesn't have the capacity issues AT&T is dealing with nor does it own 700 MHz spectrum, where the LTE deployments are happening first. It has a significant amount of spectrum in the 1700 MHz band, otherwise known as the Advanced Wireless Services band, and Ray indicated that T-Mobile has just begun to use its AWS spectrum. In other words, it has a lot of capacity.

Given the exclusive Android devices T-Mobile USA is attracting to its network and the fact that HSPA+ is seeing a healthy ecosystem of device makers, T-Mobile could very well become the dark horse in the mobile broadband race, especially when the first LTE handset probably won't come to market until late 2011 at the earliest. --Lynnette