In the past month or so, some power users did notice that AT&T had switched its 4G LTE network on, but today, the wireless carrier has made the switch official and AT&T’s 4G LTE network is open for business in the SF Bay Area. By now most of you are familiar with the benefits of a 4G LTE network – if you’re not, you can always read our “4G Networks, where are we at?” post to learn about the differences between many types of “4G” networks. Basically, 4G LTE brings double-digit Mbps speeds to handsets and USB modems (someone at the cell site got 60Mbps/sec on a handset while I was there). The network latency is also much lower than 3G, which means that overall browsing speed and Internet communications is noticeably higher.
Earlier today, I spoke with Terry Stenzel, AT&T’s VP and General Manager of the Northern California area, about this recent SF deployment. He mentioned how challenging it is to get the locations for the wireless infrastructure, but yet, there are 200 deployments in San Francisco alone. Last year, AT&T has invested $200M in San Francisco, and the company plans to continue building its network, and add more cell sites to increase the capacity (in addition to the coverage area).I asked Terry Stenzel how AT&T plans to compete with Verizon which has historically been the first LTE player, and he said that AT&T offers something that Verizon does not: while both have LTE networks, AT&T has a smoother fallback to legacy networks with HSPA+ (3.5G+, really), HSDPA (3.5G) and UMTS (3G). On the Verizon network, a lack of LTE coverage results in an immediate fallback to 3G. It is clear that independent iPhone 4S benchmarks on 3G and HSPA+ would support his point.
We also talked about the battery life concerns that are often associated with 4G LTE devices, and AT&T is very much aware of this. In the future, things like new handsets, next-gen modems and increased network density will help (think in months or years) like they did with 3G, but Terry Stenzel has a more immediate solution: in his region, he has added 220 AT&T employees to help educate customers about how to optimize their battery life, which includes tweaking the phone settings, using WiFi and even additional batteries.
My take is that when it comes to battery life, there is no silver bullet. Things will improve slowly, but steadily. Users who want the best network performance today will have to give away some battery life. Fortunately, it is very much certain that phones will quickly get smarter, and that LTE could be only used “when necessary” (for web Browsing, photo upload, but not for emails or chat, for example). Motorola has started doing something like this with their Smart Actions. The idea needs more work, but it is technically possible – today.