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CES: AT&T jumps into 4G wars with a focus on new devices (beyond the iPhone)

Following T-Mobile’s lead, AT&T brands its new HSPA+ service 4G, announcing three new high-speed smartphones and promising many more to come

LAS VEGAS--AT&T (NYSE:T) arguably started the mobile data revolution when it became the first operator to offer the Apple (NASDAQ:APPL) iPhone over its then-fast high-speed packet access (HSPA) network. But in the last year AT&T has fallen behind its three major competitors, all of whom have launched or upgraded to new mobile broadband networks.

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AT&T, however, sought to redress that imbalance today at its Developer Summit at CES, declaring its entry into the U.S. operators’ self-styled 4G branding war with network upgrades and an accelerated long-term evolution schedule. AT&T also signaled it may no longer need to use the ever-popular iPhone as a crutch, unveiling several new cutting-edge smartphones that would not only take advantage of its new network speeds but also serve as bridge to other the PC and TV screens.

At the Developer Summit, AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega said that AT&T is putting its mobile broadband efforts into high-gear. Though the launch date for its first LTE networks hasn’t changed—mid-year being the target—AT&T now expects to complete the vast majority of its nationwide rollout in 2013, allowing it to catch up with arch-competitor Verizon Wireless’ (NYSE:VZ, NYSE:VOD) own LTE rollout timeline. De la Vega also said that AT&T has completed the upgrade of its 3G network to HSPA+ in nearly 100% of its markets, though a sizable portion of its footprint is still awaiting the fiber backhaul links to support the technology’s new 21 Mb/s of capacity.
The only other thing standing in AT&T’s way is the availability of devices embedded with HSPA+ chips. But AT&T more than made up that today, announcing three new HSPA+ handsets, which will become the first three devices in what AT&T is terming its 4G services.

Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI), meanwhile, chose the event to launch not just an HSPA+ handset but a platform called Webtop that allows the phone to become the CPU for any number of peripherals, effectively converting it into a netbook or a media server for a TV.

Motorola Mobility CEO Sanjay Jha demoed the first Webtop-enabled handset, the Atrix 4G, which he billed as the most powerful smartphone in the world. The Android device contains a pair of 1 GHz processors, which would be used to power the device’s considerable video and graphical capabilities. On stage, Jha plugged the handset into a Webtop notebook--essentially a netbook-sized docking station with screen, keyboard, an expanded battery and USB ports—which caused a newly rendered user interface to appear optimized for the larger screen size. The Webtop book is just one of the possible configurations for the smartphone, Jha said. Moto envisions it becoming a multimedia and computing hub, even being used a media server to deliver HD video to a home TV monitor.

HTC CEO Peter Chou introduced his company’s new Inspire 4G, the first U.S. device to make use of HTC’s new Sense cloud-services and context-aware user interface. Samsung President H.K. Shin unveiled the Samsung Infuse 4G, which he billed as the thinnest yet largest-screened (4.5 inches) Android smartphone ever built.

Though those three devices were featured, de la Vega promised AT&T would deliver 20 “4G” devices in 2011, including HSPA+ and LTE tablets, laptop cards, netbooks and handsets. Motorola will be the first out of the gate with an HSPA+ tablet, which it is expected to unveil later this week at CES, which would be followed by an LTE tablet from an unspecified vendor in the second half of the year.

AT&T will not only have the devices, de la Vega said, it will have the network muscle to back them up. Unlike Verizon, which will use its CDMA EV-DO network as a fallback or T-Mobile (NYSE:DT), which has HSPA+ but no LTE network, AT&T will have two robust mobile broadband networks, de la Vega said. “We have the best transition path to 4G,” de la Vega said. “We’re the only company that has this path.”

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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