Mobile Sands

April 21, 2009

AT&T’s Investment in GSM/UMTS Delivers Subs & Easier 4G Uprade

Filed under: 3G, LTE, Uncategorized — Tags: , , — AJ @ 4:11 am

AT&T’s investment in GSM & UMTS is paying off.  Not only does it have an exclusive on the most desirable handset in the US market, it may also be able to upgrade to 4G at lower cost than its major rivals.

Almost 10 years ago, the different components of today’s AT&T (AT&T Wireless, BellSouth, SBC, others…) started migrating their 2G TDMA networks to 2G GSM.  They launched their first GSM/GPRS networks in 2001 and completed the migration by 2004. See this AT&T and Cingular milestones chart for more information.  Also, see this 2002 press release on the first TDMA-GSM handset

This was a period in which CDMA carriers had the lead. While Cingular and AT&T were migrating their TDMA network to GSM, Verizon Wireless was improving the coverage of its CDMA network and getting ready to launch 3G.  By the time Cingular completed nationwide 2G GSM coverage (07/2004), Verizon Wireless was ready to launch 3G EV-DO networks in over 30 major cities.  

Further, Verizon and Sprint – the two nationwide CDMA carriers – were able to rollout 3G relatively inexpensively. Both carriers just had to add channel cards to their existing CDMA base stations.  As per Verizon’s January 2004 announcement, it planned spend $1 billion to build out nationwide EV-DO coverage (compare this to the $7.2B for broadband in the stimulus package!).

Verizon may still have the best voice and data coverage in America,  but advantage has now shifted to AT&T.  With HSPA, AT&T can now boast of having the fastest 3G network and AT&T’s GSM network allowed it to get Apple’s iPhone device in 2007. As Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg admitted in a recent interview with the WSJ,  Apple never seriously considered building a CDMA device.  And it is the  iPhone that helped AT&T outpace Verizon in 2008.

Things get more challenging for Verizon (and other CDMA carriers) with 4G.  While Verizon and Sprint (Clearwire) invest billions on building their respective 4G networks, AT&T claims that it will be able to increase the peak sector throughput of its UMTS base stations from 3.6 Mbps to 7.2 Mbps via a software upgrade,  and then to 21 Mbps by upgrading to HSPA+ (the HSPA+ upgrade will involve upgrading antennas to MIMO).  These incremental base station upgrades, combined with backhaul upgrades, give AT&T the time to wait till LTE equipment is stable and cheaper.  Of course, Verizon and Sprint (Clearwire) understands the risks, and are taking aggressive steps to drive their network equipment and handset vendors to make their 4G migration as successful as possible. Still, the next two years will be very interesting.

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