AT&T's Network Plans Point to Speedier iPhone 3.5G

AT&T's had a network upgrade in the pipes for some time, but only now have official details been revealed. The plan is to upgrade the HSPA speed from 3.6Mbps to 7.2Mbps—great news for smartphone owners, and it may even hint at a new iPhone. Here's why.

The upgrades are due to begin later this year, with completion due in 2011, part of AT&T's plan for "continued investments" in the network. This plan to enhance the 3G network to so-called 3.5G will also overlap with the company's plan to begin initiating the 4G Long Term Evolution cell network. That's slated for trials next year, and it'll begin a proper roll-out in 2011. AT&T's also putting up another 2,100 cellphone towers across the U.S. to boost the network coverage across the nation, and by the end of 2009 it'll cover an additional 20 metro areas.

AT&T is careful to note that the 7.2 megabit rate is only theoretical, and is subject to device and network inefficiencies so that users probably won't see such high rates. But this will still push smartphone and other 3G-equipped technologies in the U.S. up to the higher mobile broadband standard that much of Europe already enjoys.

There's a tease in the press release that should not be missed: Those "continued investments" are also designed to give AT&T the "ideal combination of speed, coverage and best device line-up." The key phrase here is "best device," because the new HSPA speeds can only be achieved with compatible devices.

AT&T is the exclusive carrier of the iPhone in the U.S., which is currently limited to 3.6Mbps speed. But the internet's been literally bubbling over in the last few days with suggestions that the next iPhone will come in six different flavors, differentiated by hardware not software. The six are divided in two: one for 16GB storage iPhones, and one for 32GB. The big differences are that there will be three network-specific versions. One is the so-called "China Brick" which is designed for China's network and will come with specifically limited connectivity to please China Mobile. The other is a standard 3G version much like the existing version. And the final one is a 3.5G phone.

Conspiracy theorists could make a lot of that coincidence, particularly when you wind in the timing: AT&T's presumably busy in negotiations with Apple about the next device, and the WWDC—where Apple is expected to unveil the new iPhone lineup—is just 12 days away.


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