AT&T, playing catch-up to Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile, announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that it will begin rolling out its 4G LTE network sometime in mid-2011 and in the meantime will continue to finish its existing 3G HSPA+ network.
The carrier, still struggling under its iPhone-driven traffic load, has started referring to its network as the fastest mobile broadband network in the United States. However, it has not offered any metrics to back up those claims.
Currently, Verizon Wireless is the only major U.S. carrier offering 4G LTE service, having finished lighting up 38 major metropolitan areas and over 100 major airports in December 2010. T-Mobile, meanwhile, is claiming 4G speeds for its HSPA+ network with speeds of around 20M bps, depending on location. AT&T's HSPA+ network runs at about one-third the speed of T-Mobile's.
By launching its LTE network in mid-2011, AT&T would lag in 4G deployment by over a year compared with Sprint, and by more than six months compared with T-Mobile (which started calling its HSPA+ network "4G" in November) and Verizon Wireless, which built out a substantial national coverage in December. According to observers at CES, AT&T has started calling its HSPA+ network a "4G" service on advertising signs in Las Vegas.
The late launch puts AT&T substantially behind the other carriers in offering 4G-like services (note that none of these services is actually 4G according to the International Telecommunication Union). But it may coincide with the launch of the new iPhone 5, which is expected to appear at an Apple conference during the summer. Apple has long been rumored to be developing LTE for the iPhone, although until now that speculation has centered around the version for Verizon Wireless, expected to arrive in less than a month after CES.
The advantage for AT&T would be that the new LTE radios for the iPhone would have gone through at least some debugging at the hands of another carrier, and perhaps spare AT&T the glitches that plagued the iPhone 4 and its 3G connectivity. AT&T, meanwhile, is taking no chances. The company has already announced a new smartphone in conjunction with Motorola. The Attrix 4G is designed to dock into a laptop and provide faster wireless speeds than the competition.
The company has also said that it will start using the "4G" term for its new high-speed devices this spring, and it announced new smartphones from Samsung and HTC. AT&T in its CES announcement said that the company will have about 20 4G devices available by the end of 2011. While the iPhone wasn't mentioned, it's likely that it will be one of those devices.