AT&T: wireless data twice as fast by 2011

AT&T chief Randall Stephenson used his sit-down with Walt Mossberg at the D7 technology conference this morning to announce that major improvements are on the way for his company's wireless infrastructure.

Starting this year, the company will begin upgrading to HSPA 7.2, which it expects to have in place by 2011.

What's that all mean? HSPA stands for High Speed Packet Access, and AT&T's upgrade to it should double the theoretical top speed of its 3G network. When the upgrade is complete, AT&T customers with HSPA-capable devices should be able to achieve download speeds of up to 7.2 Mbits – or about 1 megabyte – per second (but expect less in real-world use).

To support the increased bandwidth requirements of HSPA, and to expand its network coverage, AT&T is adding thousands of new cell sites. Whether that means fewer outages at tech conferences, sporting events or, say, presidential inaugurations is still up in the air.

Next up: LTE

Wireless speed freaks will have to wait only until 2010 before AT&T begins trials of LTE, Stephenson said. The technology, which stands for Long Term Evolution, is a contender for the next-generation (4G) wireless standard. A WiMax rival (see Chris Gaylord's article on WiMax here), it's very similar, but is backed by more wireless carriers. As Stacy Higginbotham wrote in an explainer of the two for GigaOm, "If WiMax is the hippie, grass-roots parents on 'Family Ties,' LTE is closer to Alex P. Keaton."

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