At long last, AT&T is preparing to launch its first five markets to inaugurate its 4G LTE data network.
The second-largest carrier will flip on LTE on Sunday, September 18, for Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, according to Fierce Wireless. The nationwide carrier plans to expand to 15 markets by the end of 2011.
Already, AT&T's LTE plans are slightly delayed. The carrier stated a year ago that it would premiere its LTE network in mid-2011, rather than a few months before the year's end.
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It's true that AT&T is new to LTE, but it hasn't been idle in marketing its "4G" network prior to the rollout. AT&T's HSPA+ network offers faster speeds than typical 3G, but until the International Telecommunication Union settled the semantic dispute over what does and does not constitute 4G, many regarded AT&T's HSPA+ claim as a long, technically undeserved leap onto the 4G bandwagon (CNET included).
The long road ahead
Although AT&T has a keen eye on converting its HSPA+ network to true 4G LTE, there are hurdles ahead.
AT&T lags far behind rival Verizon, which launched its own LTE network in December last year. Since then, Big Red's 4G network has grown by leaps and bounds. It now serves up LTE to more than half of the U.S.
Verizon's significant advantage isn't lost on AT&T. The carrier knows its planned takeover of T-Mobile must succeed if it's to gain the spectrum it needs to more rapidly roll out LTE. In fact, the glittering promise of T-Mobile's spectrum was the shiny coin that caught AT&T's interested eye in the first place.
Whether the FCC will allow the merger to continue is yet to be determined. Already, AT&T is fighting against the U.S. Department of Justice's attempt to block the merger on the grounds of stifled carrier competition, and Sprint, the carrier with the most to lose, has taken its own legal action in hopes of forestalling the deal.
Without T-Mobile's assets, AT&T is reliant on the FCC's auctions to buy the spectrum it needs to support its urban, data-hungry subscribers; that could take years. Even with T-Mobile's spectrum safely tucked into its belt, AT&T will need time and money to convert T-Mobile's spectrum to LTE, which is no small task.
While AT&T's spectrum fate is still up in the air, what is certain is its need to push ahead with LTE or risk losing customers, and access to the data-gulping devices they adore.