Faster wireless networks roll out as AT&T turns on 4G LTE
Several years of telecommunications upgrades are paying off for Alaska and AT&T is the latest to announce faster service.
In Anchorage, AT&T rolled out 4G LTE service Sept. 6, about a year after GCI turned on its version of 4G. The fastest network run by General Communications Inc. is known as HSPA+, which stands for high-speed packet access.
LTE stands for long term evolution and such networks connected with fiber optic cables between towers are about 10 times faster than HSPA+, which has top download speeds of 20 megabytes per second, or mb/s.
While not a “true” 4G speed — HSPA+ is slower than 4G LTE — the GCI network is faster than the 3G service Alaska Communications currently offers.
Alaska Communications Systems Group Inc. is in the final phase of testing before rolling out its own 4G LTE system, which it began constructing in August 2011.
Verizon Wireless is also in the midst of building out a 4G LTE network, expected to be turned up by mid-2013 when the company debuts in the Alaska market.
The new AT&T network speeds are available only on compatible phones, which “fall back” from 4G LTE to the company’s HSPA+ network when customers leave the LTE coverage area.
For now, AT&T’s LTE service is offered in Anchorage and the Mat-Su.
The company has a HSPA+ network in Anchorage and more than 30 other Alaska communities, including Homer, Kodiak and North Pole.
The boosting speed throughout the state is the result of several million dollars of investments from each of the telecommunications companies.
GCI spent about $34 million its HSPA+ and 3G upgrades in 2011.
Alaska Communications estimated that their 4G LTE network will cost about $32 million, according to Mike Todd, senior vice president for Technology Services.
The company has invested more than $500 million into Alaska’s wireless and wireline broadband data networks over the last decade, Todd said.
Earlier this summer, Alaska Communications and GCI announced their intent to combine the companies’ infrastructure assets to create the Alaska Wireless Network. GCI will pay Alaska Communications $100 million and will own two-thirds of the new company with GCI Chief Operating Officer Wilson Hughes to become CEO of the Alaska Wireless Network.
Both companies will keep separate retail and marketing operations.
The move still has to work through the regulatory process, but will give customers of both companies better coverage over a wider area and will give each of the Alaska telecoms a stronger position to compete against the national carriers.
“The Alaska Wireless Network is great for Alaska and great for our customers,” Todd said. “By bringing the Alaska Communications and GCI networks together we will provide our customers with the largest and fastest network in the state.”
Scott Meyers, director of sales for AT&T Alaska, said AT&T has done a series of upgrades over the past few years in order to provide 4G LTE service. The company has spent $650 million on network improvements in the Alaska market over the last three years.
“We’ve been investing quite a bit,” Meyers said.
HSPA+ service has been available in the Anchorage area since 2010. Much of the upgrades in other communities have been done in the last six to 12 months, with more on the way, Meyers said.
“We’re definitely not done,” Meyers said. “With the announcement this week of us launching LTE, this is just the latest in our continuing network improvements.”
The locations of AT&T’s future LTE expansions are still pending. Meyers said the company plans to offer 4G LTE service in 100 markets by the end of the year, but didn’t have an Alaska-specific timeline for the service.
When the company filed for approval to acquire T-Mobile USA, it committed to building its 4G LTE network to 97 percent of the U.S., which included the entire Alaska road system, as well as Kodiak, Nome, Prudhoe Bay and Prince William Sound.
Now that the merger is not happening, AT&T has not said what communities will receive the 4G LTE network. The company’s original plan included just Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.
But AT&T won’t be Alaskans only source for 4G LTE. According to Todd, Alaska Communications plans to upgrade most of its 3G network to 4G LTE.
The company currently offers 3G service throughout Alaska – Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau were the third, fourth and fifth cities in America to receive that service in 2004. Now, that 3G network reaches about 75 percent of the population across the state.
Alaska Communications also built the Alaska-Oregon network in 2009, known as AKORN, which upgraded network capacity between Alaska and the rest of the world, and laid new fiber between Anchorage and Fairbanks and around the Kenai Peninsula to improve in-state communication.
In addition to its HSPA+ upgrades in Anchorage, GCI upgraded more than 20 communities to 3G in 2011.
How customers will respond to the increased service is still playing out, but it’s been mostly positive. AT&T has about 250,000 customers, while GCI has 140,000 and Alaska Communications has 120,000.
When GCI and Alaska Communications received the iPhone 4S in April, both companies added thousands of new customers.
Meyers said AT&T didn’t see a huge spike in traffic immediately after its Sept. 6 announcement, but that there had been an increase.
“We’ve definitely had positive feedback in our stores,” Meyers said.
Meyers said that Alaskans are generally quick to adopt mobile technology, like tablets and smart phones, and are dependent on technology for communication.
“I think Alaskans in general are excited to have technology that isn’t adopted in every city in the lower 48 yet,” he said.
Meyers said the company launched a new shared data plan recently, and is not offering a separate plan for those with the new 4G LTE connection. A compatible phone, however, is required to tap into the network.
Meyers said AT&T’s launch puts the company in a good position as manufacturers start marketing LTE phones.
Apple Inc. has said it will release information about the iPhone 5 in September, which is expected to be compatible with 4G LTE networks. ACS, AT&T, and GCI all now offer the iPhone 4S.
Meyers said AT&T has a longstanding relationship with Apple, and expects that to continue. AT&T was the first company to offer the iPhone.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.