AT&T's Many Ways of Balancing Demand and Available Spectrum

Carl Weinschenk
Slide Show

Confusion and Skepticism May Impede 4G Adoption

With so many potential 4G customers expressing concerns about cost and performance providers may be in for some disappointment.

Last week, AT&T clarified precisely how much data can be downloaded before it steps in. Previously, as The New York Times pointed out, the carrier said that throttling back on bandwidth would commence when the user is in the top 5 percent of downloading. It now specifies that downloading of 3 gigabytes of data on unlimited 3G plans and 5 gigabytes on LTE networks in congested areas represents five percent.

AT&T has every right to exert reasonable control on its network, and data hogs must be reined in. The way in which the company apparently is doing this is a bit odd, however. How can a specific amount of data that is being downloaded be assigned a percentage ahead of the time that it is being consumed? In other words, perhaps for a particular billing cycle, 3 gigabytes of data in New York City, San Francisco or another congested area doesn't quite make the top 5 percent of users. Wouldn't it be enough just to say that 5 gigabytes or 3 gigabytes is a lot of data, and people using that much will be throttled?

It's likely that the approach of tying the amount of data to the percentage came from the marketing department, which no doubt wants to drive home the point that AT&T only is going after people who are taking advantage.

It also is likely that limiting consumers is one leg of a comprehensive strategy to keep its networks running smoothly. AT&T, of course, failed late last year to acquire T-Mobile and its bandwidth. Various other techniques are in play for the industry, including the efficiencies gained from better managing the juxtaposition of cellular and wireless and, potentially, using approaches pioneered in white space research to reuse temporarily available spectrum on a real-time basis.

GigaOm, via MarketWatch, reported today that AT&T has another trick up its sleeve: It is pressuring its 2G users to upgrade. The implication is clear: The carrier is moving to address its spectrum problems internally. According to GigaOm:

If AT&T is shutting down a significant portion of 2G networks, it may have found an answer to its capacity problems-at least in part. If it can't buy new 4G airwaves, then it can cannibalize its older networks, harvesting their valuable frequencies for new HSPA and LTE capacity. That's exactly the approach T-Mobile plans to take to get to LTE. When all is said and done, T-Mobile will have a sliver of GSM network remaining, but it will have an even bigger HSPA+ than it runs today, as well as an LTE network on par with AT&T and Sprints'.

The funny thing is that, at this point, 4G is not exactly exploding, at least judging by its competitor Verizon Wireless. This week the carrier said that only about 5 percent of its subscribers are using LTE. It's a safe bet that AT&T is at a lower level. Apparently, these carriers are confident that the sluggish early results soon will pick up.

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