AT&T 4G network architecture and the LTE wars

Frost & Sullivan analyst Mike Jude looks at how changes in the AT&T 4G network architecture deployment is upping the ante among 4G LTE wireless operators, particularly as smartphone and tablet use increases and spurs faster deployment.

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At its developers’ conference in January, AT&T announced the launch of significant new initiatives in the evolution of its wireless network. Undoubtedly aware of its relatively quiet market position in 4G network technology deployment compared to Verizon and Sprint, AT&T chose the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) -- the day after its developers’ conference -- to dramatically up the ante in the 4G network space.

AT&T quietly noted that much of its LTE capability depends on accelerating the upgrade of its radio area network backhaul transport.

Mike Jude
Program Manager
Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan

AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega opened the developer conference by noting that by 2014, nearly 50% of all cell phones would be smartphones. While this is a much higher estimate than some market analysts have projected, it is nevertheless a quantum jump in smartphone penetration compared to today’s market. As de la Vega pointed out, these smartphones will need a network to ride on, and it seems that Long-Term Evolution (LTE) will be the AT&T 4G network architecture of choice.

While Verizon captured the buzz in 2010 when it announced it had successfully deployed limited LTE access to 38 U.S. markets, AT&T has always had a technology advantage with its High Speed Packet Access (HSPA+) network infrastructure. The reason is that HSPA and LTE share a common technological base. Upgrading an HSPA network to LTE is much less complex and expensive than upgrading from a completely different technology base, as Verizon is doing with its EV-DO 3G network.

In fact, this 4G technology advantage was apparent when AT&T projected that it would be almost completely converted to LTE by 2013, which is similar to objectives set by Verizon and Sprint, which both began their 4G network rollouts much earlier. AT&T notes that it intends to maintain its lead in network access speed, since its HSPA currently has the capability to approach LTE download speeds.

4G network competition spurs faster deployment

This is not to say that this AT&T 4G network architecture upgrade will be a smooth road for the company. As is well known, AT&T’s HSPA+ network is challenged by the loads it is currently expected to support. This is largely why AT&T has emphasized smartphone plans that include free Wi-Fi access for offloading major content downloads to a non-cellular network. AT&T quietly noted that much of its LTE capability will depend on accelerating the upgrade of its network backhaul transport to fiber and Ethernet.

Nevertheless, AT&T was sufficiently optimistic in its ability to deploy LTE with a high quality of experience for subscribers that it also announced the introduction of a new line of HSPA smartphones. These include the Motorola Atrix 4G, HTC Inspire 4G and Samsung Infuse 4G. Additionally, AT&T is embracing next-generation platforms by specifying HTML5 support in each. And while HTML5 is currently a very loose technology standard, the fact that a common base across devices is being adopted is encouraging.

AT&T’s plan will likely accelerate its evolution to 4G and will drive competitive responses by the two other major U.S. 4G players: Verizon and Sprint. The near-term impact will likely be an increased deployment in LTE infrastructure and new 4G instruments. Verizon, in particular, will be pressured to solve its handoff issues between EV-DO and LTE. AT&T, based on HSPA, has no such handoff issues and will likely capitalize on that fact in its marketing.

About the author: Mike Jude is a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan in charge of the consumer communication services practice. He brings 30 years of experience in technology management in manufacturing, wide-area network design, intellectual property management and public policy. Jude holds degrees in electrical engineering and engineering management and a Ph.D. in decision analysis. He is co-author of The Case for Virtual Business Processes: Reduce Costs, Improve Efficiencies and Focus on Your Core Business, Cisco Press, 2003.

This was first published in February 2011

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