Confirming rumors from last month, AT&T announced yesterday that it is doubling the speed of its 3G network from the current theoretical maximum of 3.6 Mbps to 7.2 Mbps. The roll out will start this year and finish in 2011.
New hardware will be required to take advantage of this 7.2 Mpbs network, and perhaps this is a feature that will be included in the next version of the iPhone that many believe will be introduced on June 8th at Apple's WWDC conference. iLounge is suggesting that the next iPhone might come in two versions -- a normal 3G version, and an enhanced 3G version that can take advantage of the 7.2 Mpbs networks.
AT&T also says that the existing 3G network will also be improved by "nearly doubling the wireless spectrum dedicated to 3G in most metropolitan areas to deliver stronger in-building reception and more overall network capacity." Better in-building reception would be a welcome improvement.
Note that these 3.6 and 7.2 numbers are theoretical peaks. As AT&T cheerfully admits in the same press release: "Typical real-world downlink and uplink speeds experienced by customers with upgraded 3G will be less than the theoretical peak and will vary based on a number of factors, including location, device, and overall traffic on the local network at a given time." I have never seen anything close to 3.6 Mbps on my iPhone using 3G. On Wi-Fi I can get around 3 Mbps but on the AT&T 3G network I'm usually at around 1 Mbps. Nevertheless, if doubling the theoretical maximum were to mean that Wi-Fi speeds become possible on an iPhone using 3G, that would be very impressive.
AT&T also said that its 7.2 Mpbs 3G is just a stepping stone to even greater speeds using the even faster 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) network, which will be deployed starting in 2011. LTE has a potential speed of 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps, and even if the real world results are far less, we are talking about serious broadband speeds.
Interestingly, LTE is also in Verizon's future. Both Jim Dalrymple (formerly of Macworld, now with CNET) and Om Malik of Gigaom have suggested that AT&T is working hard to improve its network to convince Apple to keep the iPhone exclusively with AT&T instead of opening it up to Verizon. The iPhone has brought a staggering number of new customers to AT&T. For example, a few months ago, AT&T released quarterly results stating that it had gained 2.1 million new customers and 1.9 million new iPhone accounts, 40% of which were new to AT&T, leading one tech commentator to joke that when it comes to AT&T's profits, "Thank God for vitamin i, eh?" But Verizon currently has a reputation for having a better network, and there have been rumors that Verizon is using its plan to shift to LTE more quickly than AT&T to lure Apple to bring the iPhone to AT&T. As discussed during this week's MacBreak Weekly podcast (show notes here), there are a ton of people who aren't using an iPhone because they want to stick with Verizon because of the better network, and Apple would sell a huge number of iPhones if they were available on Verizon. Indeed, many with a choice would pick a Verizon iPhone over an AT&T iPhone because of the Verizon network.
Regardless of why AT&T is doing it, it is nice to see AT&T improving its network, and I look forward to someday having an iPhone that can take advantage of these new speeds.