AT&Ts Kris Rinne: Industry on Right Track

In her keynote address to 4G World in Chicago this week, Kris Rinne, senior vice president of architecture and planning at AT&T, warned the community not to underestimate the challenges of implementing 4G technologies, especially LTE, but said the industry is absolutely on the right track.

In fact, it has reached a tipping point for mobile broadband, she said.

Over the last 12 quarters mobile data usage on the AT&T network has grown by 4932 percent. “And it not all the iPhone,” she said. The sale of PC cards has exploded during this time frame, mobile e-mail has gone mass market, and there is the more recent netbook phenomenon as well as machine to machine communication.

In the last year, AT&T has activated 8.3 million iPhone customers and expanded the number of smartphones. “We are building our network to serve these customers,” Rinne said.

She added that the growth of the wireless Internet is not that different from the history of the growth of the traditional Internet. Just as America Online dominated the early Internet then collapsed when people wanted more than dialup, any leader in broadband today is vulnerable and must keep moving and improving, Rinne said.

After listing a number of firsts AT&T brought to market, such as wireless e-mail, the first wireless Palm device, the first wireless browser even before the iPhone, and a launch pad for Windows Mobile, she claimed for AT&T the leadership role in smartphones, saying the company had more of them than any other carrier. The number of postpaid customers carrying integrated devices has more than doubled to 36 percent in the last year.

She acknowledged the bad press coverage over its network performance problems and said AT&T is aggressively expanding and building out its networks to meet the needs of all customers. “Our goal is not just to build to 3GPP standards but to make it the best possible network,” she said.

So far, she said, AT&T has invested $38 billion to enhance its wireless and wired networks over the last two years. “More than anyone in world,” she said. It plans to add more than 2,000 cell sites to expand into new cities and improve coverage in existing areas. A big priority for future investment will be wireless backhaul.

That’s why AT&T is deploying fiber to 3G cell sites within its 22-state wireline footprint and next year will bring a five-fold increase in the number of newly deployed fiber sites.

Along with the network equipment buildout, Rinne emphasized the importance of managing the network. “Network devices and applications are one thing but, we have to be able to manage our networks so that all customers can have a good experience,” she said.

The company will begin LTE trials in 2010 with initial deployments in 2011, and its 700 Mhz spectrum will be used exclusively for LTE. Voice over LTE is currently scheduled for evaluation around 2012, but the company has not made a final decision regarding voice. “There are lots of issues to work out there,” Rinne said.

She also echoed Yankee Group’s position that there will be a massive ecosystem transformation.

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