AT&T has been under fire recently for the poor quality of its cellular network, in particular its 3G broadband inconsistency and connectivity problems with the iPhone. On Wednesday, AT&T released a broad statement in which it detailed its network upgrade plans for the next 24-36 months and promised “to deliver considerably faster mobile broadband speeds.”

Here is what AT&T is promising, and in brackets I’ve put the translation of what it means for users in the real world.

  1. Update its 3G network to High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) 7.2, a technology that is part of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP).
    [This will increase the amount of real bandwidth that each user can receive]
  2. Nearly double the amount of wireless spectrum (850 GHz) capacity on its 3G network in most major metro areas
    [This which will boost in-building reception and allow the network to handle more users]
  3. Increase bandwidth to cell sites by adding more fiber-optic lines
    [This is sometimes referred to as “backhaul” and it is critical to make sure cellular data networks don’t get bogged down by too many users or high-bandwidth applications]
  4. Deployment of 2100 new cell sites across the U.S.
    [This keeps users on the AT&T network and decreases dropped calls and network hiccups]
  5. Increase 3G mobile broadband coverage from about 350 cities currently, to about 370 by the end of 2009
    [This keeps users on mobile broadband in more cities and keeps them from dropping to the much slower EDGE network]
  6. Offer Wi-Fi access and integration for all 3G plan customers at 90,000 AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide  [This is also called “fixed mobile convergence” and it enables users to seamlessesly hop between the cellular network and Wi-Fi for data access; this is currently available to iPhone customers but AT&T plans to extend it to all smartphone customers who are on a qualifying data plan]
  7. Start customer trials for AT&T MicroCells and then make them available to all home and small business customers
    [These are also referred to more generally as “femtocells” and they function as mini cell towers that you can put in your house or small business and connect to your Internet router; they are used to improve cell reception in areas with poor signals]
  8. Conduct LTE (4G) trials in 2010 and begin deployments in 2011
    [This movement toward 4G will greatly expand the capacity for more users and higher bandwidth]

Along with its statement of promised upgrades, Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility, said:

“AT&T’s network infrastructure gives us a tremendous advantage in that we’re able to deliver upgrades in mobile broadband speed and performance with our existing technology platform. With the array of smartphones, laptops and emerging devices taking advantage of AT&T’s 3G network today, we know that customers are excited to experience higher mobile broadband speeds, and we are deploying the right technologies at the right times to help them get the most from that experience.”

I don’t think AT&T is actually announcing anything new. It’s just revealing all of the plans that it has to improve its network, which is arguably the most inconsistent and unreliable network among the big four U.S. carriers. AT&T is releasing this information to try to stem the current wave of criticism about its network, especially in relation to AT&T’s performance with the data-heavy iPhone.

Both users and the tech press will hold AT&T to these promises.

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Also take a look at AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s interview with Walt Mossberg at the D: All Things Digital conference on Wednesday, where he talked about AT&T’s network challenges and its future plans. In the interview, Stephenson said, “If you look at reasons for churn in our industry, the No. 1 reason is network quality.”

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