If AT&T’s plan to acquire T-Mobile USA is approved by U.S. regulatory authorities, it will completely change the wireless landscape. The merger will affect rates, customer service and consumer choice, to say the least. But what will it mean for AT&T and T-Mobile’s 4G network implementation?
While Sprint and Verizon have full-fledged 4G networks up and running, using WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) and LTE (Long Term Evolution), respectively, AT&T and T-Mobile lag behind with HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) technology. Though the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recognizes HSPA+ as 4G, it’s considered by experts to be more like 3.5G. This is in part because HSPA+ is an upgrade of the carrier’s existing equipment, while WiMax and LTE are a complete overhaul. Both AT&T and T-Mobile have mentioned plans to adopt LTE; AT&T’s launch is imminent, while T-Mobile does not yet have a set timeline.
AT&T is currently one of the largest national carriers – it has 95 million subscribers, second only to Verizon’s 102 million – but it has lagged behind the others in upgrading its 3G network. Right now it has a less developed HSPA+ network than T-Mobile (the smallest national carrier); AT&T’s HSPA+ network is in about 10 cities, while T-Mobile’s is in about 100 metro areas. T-Mobile will soon expand their 4G network to 10 additional cities, mainly in the Midwest, including Michigan, Kansas and Illinois, a part of the country that has next to no 4G coverage right now.
At the same time, AT&T has more resources to upgrade its network to LTE, and plans to start rolling that out by mid-year. A merger between the two carriers could mean the best of both worlds: a larger intermediary HSPA+ network for AT&T and faster access to LTE for T-Mobile. This is where T-Mobile subscribers could benefit: they’ll get 4G much sooner than they could without the merger. After all, T-Mobile was the last of the four major U.S. carriers to implement 3G.
Of course, none of this will happen right away – the acquisition will take at least a year, probably more. It’s also helpful to remember that 3G didn’t happen overnight. While the idea was hatched in 2000, it was several years before national carriers had substantial 3G coverage. Verizon doesn’t expect to complete its 4G network until the end of 2013, and it has a head start.