AT&T increases wireless network to high-speed 3G

AT&T said it will offer maximum 20Mb/s downloads over its wireless network as soon as next year. The high speed, which in real world terms will be significantly lower than the maximum, means that the network will significantly boost the speeds of the new 3G iPhone from Apple, due soon.

AT&T’s message was also meant to show that it will remain competitive with the new WiMax network currently being built by Sprint Nextel/Clearwire.

Ralph de la Vega, AT&T’s mobility chief, told investors that his company is currently upgrading its 3G wireless network to the newest and fastest version of the UMTS technology, known as High Speed Uplink Packet Access-enabled (HSUPA). This new technology will increase the speed of the network five-fold, he said. But exactly how fast the network will run is somewhat debatable.

Today AT&T’s 3G network, which uses the UMTS technology called High Speed Data Packet Access (HSDPA), can theoretically deliver download speeds of about 3.6Mb/s. But in the real world speeds are closer to 400Mb/s to 700Mb/s. The new version of the network, which will use HSUPA will have a theoretical speed of 20Mb/s. Actual download speeds are unknown.

Because the actual speed of a network is dependent on several factors, such as how many users are on the network and how far apart the cell sites are spaced, users say the network typically runs only 20 percent of the theoretical speed the technology used allows.

That said, AT&T’s HSUPA network will likely provide download speeds that are competitive with speeds that Sprint Nextel/Clearwire plans to deliver with its new network that uses a different technology known as WiMax.

However, the best part of AT&T’s strategy is that it can achieve these new speeds simply by upgrading software in its existing 3G infrastructure. 3G handsets, such as the anticipated new iPhone, will also be able to leverage the higher speeds simply by upgrading their software. Meanwhile, the new Clearwire still has to build its network and get WiMax-enabled devices in the hands of subscribers.