AT&T goes live with femtocells, but skips HSPA+
Published: 22 September, 2009
Most of AT&T's recent PR activity has been geared to convincing the world that its network quality will improve significantly by next year, providing better support for devices like the iPhone and netbooks. This week has seen a flurry of leaks and announcements, from new spectrum, to a rethink on HSPA+, to the first appearance of the long awaited femtocell service.
The US has led the world in commercial roll-out of the tiny indoor base stations, but AT&T will be the first to offer 3G femtocells (Sprint's Airave is 2G only). The aim is to improve indoor coverage and help offload some of the mobile broadband traffic that is overburdening its macro network (femtos are backhauled by the customer's DSL lines). In future, the operator will also look to use the devices to enable fixed/mobile convergence services and other advanced applications, leveraging features like the femto's presence awareness.
AT&T has run some limited commercial trials of what it calls the Microcell and now has a live web site for the service, which details three pricing options, to be offered in a few cities initially, as part of a soft launch. Broader roll-out is expected in December. The first trial was in the Charlotte, NC area and the first stage launch extends this to the metro areas of Raleigh, NC, Columbia, SC, and Atlanta. Seattle - like Atlanta, becoming a hotbed of advanced wireless launches - may join the list soon.
According to DSLReports, customers can get a free femto if they have the full AT&T triple play of wireless, landline and broadband, while it will cost $10 for those with two AT&T services, and $20 for mobile-only customers (all with unlimited calls). The pricing is on a trial basis and could change for the national roll-out.
The carrier is working with Cisco on the launch, which in turn partners with UK-based femto specialist ip.access. Cisco is said to be working on an integrated gateway unit that incorporates a femto, to add to the current standalone product.
Several operators round the world are already looking into LTE femtocells, since the tiny cells could aid a flexible roll-out strategy in areas of high capacity requirement. AT&T is likely to join this line soon, since it is looking to move directly from its current HSPA network to LTE, bypassing the HSPA+ stage. Kris Rinne, AT&T's senior VP of architecture and planning, told last week's 4G World show in Chicago that the carrier would continue to look at HSPA+ but had no plans to deploy it.
Some operators argue that it is not cost-effective to follow the whole HSPA+ route, since it requires hardware upgrades to the base station to support MIMO smart antenna arrays (earlier HSPA variants are software updates at the base station, though requiring new handsets). T-Mobile International has been one of the most vocal carriers on this side, but ironically its US arm is waving the HSPA+ flag. During a speech in Chicago, the carrier's senior VP of engineering operations, Neville Ray, said T-Mobile would deploy 21Mbps HSPA+ nationwide by the end of 2010. It is already live in parts of Philadelphia and its schedule would easily outrun AT&T's - the larger cellco is only updating to 7.2Mbps HSPA in 2009-2010, even as most of the developed world moves to 14.4Mbps and higher, and will start initial LTE commercial trials in 2010. It will cover 90% of its footprint with HSPA, but only by late 2011, so broad-based LTE is unlikely until 2012 or later.
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