AT&T mobile data growth eases -- to 30x

The carrier continues to upgrade 3G, with 80 percent of its network set for HSPA+

The estimated growth in data traffic on AT&T's mobile network has slowed, the carrier's CTO said Tuesday, though it remains explosive at more than 3,000 percent over the past three years.

The volume of mobile data traffic grew from just over 1 billion megabytes in the third quarter of 2007 to about 30.3 billion megabytes in the third quarter of this year, CTO John Donovan told an audience of developers at the Sencha Conference in San Francisco. That growth rate of about 30 times is down from three-year growth of about 50 times earlier this year, he said. However, expansion is hardly screeching to a halt.

"If you look in absolute numbers, it's still a tremendous growth rate," Donovan said. He attributed the change to the difficulty of an already very large number to keep increasing rapidly.

AT&T has come under much criticism over the past few years for not keeping up with the demand for data capacity from the popular iPhone and other mobile devices. The carrier continues to upgrade its network to meet that demand, deploying HSPA+ this year and planning a LTE (Long-Term Evolution) rollout next year.

Eighty percent of AT&T's mobile network has been upgraded to HSPA+, which will offer two or two-and-a-half times the performance of HSPA 7.2, AT&T's current top-end cellular technology, Donovan said Tuesday. The carrier recently introduced USB modems that can use HSPA+ as well as LTE. It is also upgrading the backhaul from its cell sites to Ethernet on fiber links. Backhaul improvements do not proceed in lockstep with base-station upgrades but are ongoing across the whole network, said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel.

The HSPA+ technology has a theoretical maximum speed of 21M bps (bits per second), Siegel said, though he cautioned that individual subscribers won't experience that type of speed. T-Mobile USA also uses an HSPA+ system rated for that speed, and refers to it as a "4G" network because it represents a significant jump up from its older 3G system. (T-Mobile says its HSPA+ delivers up to 5M bps downstream to a phone and 12M bps to a USB modem.) AT&T believes such speed comparisons are less important to consumers than the overall user experience, Siegel said.

Part of what is driving data growth is the growing popularity of "integrated devices," which AT&T defines as handsets with QWERTY keyboards and voice capability, typically smartphones. Today, 57 percent of AT&T's postpaid subscribers have integrated devices, up from 23.3 percent in 2008, he said.

Donovan also told the developers about AT&T's efforts to aid in development of mobile applications, which he believes are just beginning to proliferate. Sencha, which sponsors the conference, is a provider of application frameworks based on Web standards.

AT&T is working on making it easier for small software houses to deal with a large carrier, avoiding delays that come from being referred back and forth among different groups, Donovan said. The aim is to help get applications onto AT&T's network in one-third the time, or quickly turn down those it's not interested in, he said. "We're trying to de-clutter our organization," he said. AT&T has invested "tens of millions of dollars" in the effort, he said.

The carrier has established innovation centers in Palo Alto, California, Plano, Texas, and near Tel Aviv, Israel to work more closely with software creators, he said. The carrier wants to talk to 400 developers per year; it has met with 150 so far this year and expects to talk with 100 more this quarter.

The next big opportunity for mobile developers is in enterprise tools, Donovan said. Business applications require different skills than consumer mobile software because components such as security, privacy and device control are basic requirement. But enterprises are now embracing personal mobile devices, he said.

"CIOs have stopped fighting the concept that someone would rather bring a $500 device that's their own into the business and use it, rather than carry it alongside a $100 device that the enterprise gave you," Donovan said.

Overall, software needs to become more standardized, in the same way that networks converged around IP (Internet Protocol) over the past decade, Donovan said. For example, software needs to talk to other software and share data now.

"The vertical stacks which were so great to rapidly stand up the Web have become insufficient to drive really rich applications," he said.

As part of this trend, AT&T strongly supports HTML5, but there is more work to be done before that next-generation Web development language can be used for rich mobile applications, Donovan said. HTML5 applications will need access to services on a device such as cameras and location, and access to information that provides context. AT&T is working with Sencha to prioritize the many elements that HTML5 applications will need, he said.

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