Cingular Wireless completed its integration of the AT&T wireless network it acquired less than two years ago.
Originally the company promised that the network integration would be accomplished by the end of 2006. However, the massive project ultimately came in ahead of schedule.
The final step in the integration process came with a cell site in Chicago, scene of the first commercial cell phone call in 1983.
“We have about 47,000 cell sites that talk to each other and that customers can connect to,” said Cingular spokesperson Ritch Blasi, who added that this is a significant improvement of conditions two years ago.
“When Cingular merged with AT&T wireless, you had access to a bunch of cell sites, about 47,000 or 48,000 of them,” Blasi said. “But once you attached to them, you stayed with that network.”
This meant that once you connected to one of the cell sites, you would stick with the original networks sites rather than being handed off from a former AT&T site to a Cingular site, or vice versa.
“Now, theres a seamless hand off between the 47,000 sites,” Blasi said.
Blasi said that while the network integration is complete, Cingular still needs to do a lot of work on its network.
“Right now, along with all of the integration, were moving towards having one core network,” he said. “There used to be about 13 separate networks because of duplication after AT&T merger. We closed CDPD, combined TDMA, and should have only one E911 by end of the year.”
Blasi said that Cingular is currently planning to shut down its analog services after February, 2008, and will have roaming agreements in place for its analog customers by then.
In addition to completing the integration of the Cingular and AT&T networks, Blasi said that Cingular is making significant progress on building out its HSDPA network.
He said that as of October 3, HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) is available in 44 markets in the United States, covering 105 cities of 100,000 people or more.
A number of analysts have said that by the end of 2006, Cingulars HSDPA would be available in about 70 major markets.
While Blasi acknowledged that Cingular was behind Verizon Wireless and Sprint in terms of total installations for 3G data services, he noted that because HSDPA and UMTS (universal mobile telephone service) are global standards, Cingular users should be able to have broadband access globally.
“Theyve done it three months ahead of time,” said Roger Entner, Vice President Wireless Telecom for the London-based technology research and consulting company Ovum. “When they closed the merger they committed to the end of the year, and theyve done it three months ahead.”
Blasi noted that Cingular had revised its promise recently to indicate that the completion would come sooner than originally promised.
“It makes life much easier for Cingular because they have to manage fewer systems,” Entner said. “It also should improve their retention rate because of their increased focus on coverage and call quality, because customers will have less reason to leave.”
Entner added that Cingulars churn rate has come down successively every quarter. He also said that theres a downside to the 3G plans, which is that UMTS for Cingular, and thus HSPDA, will operate on 850 and 1900 MHz, which are incompatible frequencies for the rest of the world.
He said that this means that U.S. users will have to endure the lower data speeds of Edge and GPRS when traveling until devices appear with broader frequency support.
Entner said that because UMTS has broad global support, customers should expect to see a much broader selection of handsets and lower prices than theyre likely to find with Verizon or Sprint.
“Theyre executing ahead of schedule. Thats good harbinger of things to come,” Entner said
Phil Redman, research vice president, mobile and wireless for Gartner, based in Stamford, Conn., said that he likes what he sees.
“Two years for such a massive network implementation is impressive. Verizon took four years,” he said.
Redman noted that this was a massive project, calling it one of the largest network integrations in history.
Redman said that Cingular should have no problem getting to 70 markets with its high speed data support. “They probably have 60 today that are working,” he said, adding that theyre probably just not listed as being live because testing isnt finished.
Redman said that one mistake observers make about Cingular is assuming it is not doing anything when theres been no announcement.
“They take a different strategy rather than a market-by-market basis, so theyve been looking at it on a national basis,” he said.
Redman speculated that this might have something to do with erroneous reports in other media (Bloomberg News) that Cingular was behind in deployment.
Redman said that Cingular still needs to finish work on its backhaul network to support higher speeds, and he said that its works needs to be completed on its customer service network.
“You need to balance speed with coverage and coverage is still more important,” he said.
Blasi said that when Cingular gets its HSPDA network running in a market, the company can deliver more to its customers than Verizon or Sprint can deliver.
“The phones do simultaneous voice and data,” Blasi said, “I could be using my phone as a modem and still make a voice call on that same device. I could be on a conference call and be checking my e-mail while Im talking. You cant do that with CDMA,” he said, referring to Verizon and Sprint.
He also noted that with Cingulars support for global standards, you can use one of its phones in over 200 different countries.