AT&T 3G Buildout Almost Done as RCA Decries Handset Exclusivity

AT&T Inc. soon will complete its 3G network upgrade to HSPA, the first operator in the United States to do so.

The announcement comes as AT&T, conveniently, plans the June release of the AT&T-exclusive 3G Apple iPhone, the very sort of arrangement the Rural Cellular Association (RCA) is decrying.

The RCA, which represents dozens of small and rural wireless providers, yesterday asked the FCC to investigate handset exclusivity. The iPhone and Verizon Communications Inc.’s LG Voyager are prime examples of devices many rural Americans want to use, but can’t, because AT&T and Verizon don’t serve their areas, the group said.

“It is important that all Americans have equal access to the latest technology, including wireless devices, regardless of where they live or which carrier provides the service,” said David Nace, counsel to RCA. Such deals only perpetuate the so-called digital divide between urban and rural America, he added.

AT&T is sure to lobby against the RCA’s request – and what AT&T wants, it usually gets. Exclusive handset contracts boost earnings by the millions, as evidenced by AT&T’s quarterly reports since adding the iPhone to its lineup last year.

In the meantime, AT&T said its HSPA buildout will be finished by the end of June. Users will have access to uplink speeds of between 500kpbs and 800kpbs; download capabilities for devices such as AT&T’s LaptopConnect wireless modems will top out around 1.4mpbs.

AT&T said it’s spent more than $20 billion over the past three years in network upgrades. The 3G network will be available in nearly 350 markets by year-end; it’s in 275 markets now. AT&T also is one of several operators planning to adopt the Long Term Evolution protocol to reach even higher speeds some time down the road.

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