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AT&T's LTE boot-up: What it means to you (Q&A)

Although AT&T will officially launch its 4G LTE network in five cities this weekend, customers will still have to wait before getting the goodness.


Come Sunday, AT&T will finally flip the switch on its 4G LTE network--in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio--almost a year after announcing its LTE launch plans.

Although AT&T's marketing machine has leaned on the carrier's existing HSPA+ network to fill its 4G gap, AT&T's progress lags three-quarters of a year behind Verizon's LTE network, which now covers over half of the U.S.

Suffice it to say that AT&T customers have been waiting a long time for LTE, hungry for the more advanced 4G technology and the faster speeds it brings. Sadly, phone owners will have to wait a while longer. Getting the LTE juices flowing doesn't mean that the faster 4G network is ready to digest your smartphone data.

Wait a second--doesn't my phone already have 4G?
You only think it does. AT&T handsets like the LG Thrill 4G and Samsung Infuse 4G run on AT&T's HSPA+ network. Despite the ITU (International Telecommunication Union)'s recognition of HSPA+ as 4G, it's actually an entirely different breed of network, and one that's more technologically related to 3G than it is to LTE.

What else does LTE do for me?
LTE's speed thresholds are higher than HSPA+, and faster data speeds mean faster downloads, richer media streaming, and quicker page load times. LTE can theoretically achieve a 100Mbps downlink speed. At best, HSPA+ can deliver a maximum of 84Mbps down, with stress on the theory. In practice, results are often a fraction of that.

For its part, AT&T has previously stated that LTE could be more than three times faster than its HSPA+ network and up to 10 times faster than 3G. More specifically, an AT&T spokesperson told CNET that "we expect that in most markets our 4G LTE speeds will be in the 5-12Mbps downlink and 2-5Mbps uplink speed range." In comparison, Verizon's Motorola Droid Bionic averaged about 10.18Mbps down and 4.62Mbps during our tests in San Francisco.

When can I start using LTE?
Right now, so long as you have the AT&T USBConnect Momentum 4G, the AT&T Mobile Hotspot Elevate 4G, the HTC Jetstream, or the AT&T USBConnect Adrenaline, which are two laptop cards, a tablet, and a mobile hot spot.

Although these four LTE-ready devices are available now, don't hold your breath that you'll be streaming movies with lightning speed from your handset this weekend. Although five cities will technically receive the kiss of LTE this weekend, you won't be able to use your existing "4G" (HSPA+) phone on the LTE network. For that, you'll need an LTE-compatible phone, which we don't expect to see until closer to the holiday season and the year's end. The company's Chief Technology Officer, John Donovan, confirmed that much in May.

Additionally, AT&T will need to expand its network to support those smartphone sales. The telecom plans to add ten more markets by the end of 2011.

So, I can't use my current HSPA+ phone on LTE?
No more than you can use your 3G phone on HSPA+. They use different technologies.

Ok, well, can I use it on other LTE networks, like Verizon and MetroPCS (and vice verse)?
Them's fighting words. Each wireless carrier protects its business. After all, you can't use your AT&T 3G phone on T-Mobile, even though they're both GSM networks; and you can't use Verizon's 3G phones on Sprint's turf, even though they're both CDMA.

If I have an HSPA+ phone already, will I get a discount if I upgrade to LTE?
Since the technologies are incompatible, getting a new LTE-ready handset will require the same process as switching to any other phone, a new two-year agreement.

Will all LTE phones be smartphones?
At this point, AT&T refers to its LTE phones as smartphones. That makes the most sense as well. LTE networks are new and wireless spectrum is scarce. Carriers require much more spectrum to build out LTE, a tough prospect considering the limited supply until the FCC auctions off more. Smartphone owners have the greatest demand for this fast data, and higher-priced smartphones with higher-priced monthly plans will bring carriers closer to covering costs.

That said, MetroPCS' first LTE phone, the Samsung Craft, was a feature phone, not a smartphone. As LTE networks are completed, we'll see a broader range of devices feed off the technology as it begins to replace 3G data.

What's AT&T's stance on HSPA+?
Although LTE is AT&T's long-term goal (a project that they plan to finish in 2013), HSPA+ has been AT&T's lifeline in the battle over 4G coverage. AT&T is also claiming its HSPA+ network as a beneficial fallback network for LTE phone owners to get faster-than-3G speeds when they wander outside of AT&T's LTE coverage areas.