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AT&T Migrating 3G Network to 7.2 Mbps, Planning for 21 Mbps Later This Year?

Telephony Online reports that AT&T is in the process of upgrading its 3G wireless network from the current 3.6 Mbps download standard to 7.2 Mbps. Several recent rumors have suggested that the next-generation iPhone due this summer will be able to take advantage of the higher speeds.

AT&T is increasing the downlink capacity on its high-speed packet access (HSPA) from 3.6 megabits per second to 7.2 Mb/s through software upgrades at the base station, said Scott McElroy, AT&T Mobility vice president of technology realization. AT&T currently has the enhanced networks running in two test markets but plans to extend those capabilities to its entire network.

Furthermore, while the HSPA standard has the capability of supporting 14.4 Mbps through future upgrades, AT&T appears to be planning to bypass that step and move later this year directly to the HSPA+ standard, offering download speeds of up to 21 Mbps and a number of other upgrades.

The next obvious step would be for AT&T to further upgrade its 3G networks and devices to its full 14.4-Mb/s potential, but McElroy said AT&T will most likely skip the final HSPA iteration for two reasons: There have been technical difficulties implementing the final step, and HSPA+ is now ready for prime time. There's little point in migrating to 14.4 Mb/s if AT&T can go straight to 21 Mb/s, McElroy said.

These upgrades to AT&T's 3G network are designed to serve as intermediate steps until AT&T rolls out its LTE (4G) network, currently slated to debut in 2011.