It's not hard to see how the smartphone — iPhones, BlackBerrys and their ilk — is changing the way we view the phone.

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I t’s not hard to see how the smartphone — iPhones, BlackBerrys and their ilk — is changing the way we view the phone. The latest versions transform the handset from a phone with a few extras into a true, untethered palm-sized computer, a vision first brought into being years ago, and only now bearing fruit.

But the smartphone’s impact on the supplier side of the equation — the wireless carriers — may be just as far-reaching. Each of the country’s four largest cellular carriers is upgrading its networks at great expense to cope with today’s vastly increased usage and the expectation that capacity needs will only keep expanding by leaps and bounds.

The carriers are jockeying for bragging rights about which company will have the fastest network in the world of 4G, or fourth-generation mobile technology. At the heart of this push today and for the foreseeable future are the bandwidth needs of the smartphones and other devices and customer expectations of how well the devices should operate.

“Customers want speeds like they’re used to having on their laptops and computers at home on their handheld device,” said Mike Maxwell, vice president and general manager for the Pacific Northwest at AT&T.

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The iPhone has acted as the leading edge of that charge, with AT&T, the iPhone’s exclusive wireless carrier, suffering widely reported bandwidth crunches on its 3G (third-generation) network. “It’s a more intensive use. It requires a stronger network. Our data traffic levels have gone up considerably with the iPhone being out,” Maxwell said.

And, as Monica Paolini, principal of Seattle-area consulting firm Senza Fili, said, “The problem is not going away, it’s getting worse by the day.”

That worries cellular carriers enough to commit tens of billions of dollars over the next few years to build more robust, faster 4G networks. The investment includes purchasing more spectrum to handle more simultaneous data in a given area, upgrading standards to squeeze more data out of data channels, and boosting so-called “backhaul” to carry all the additional bits and bytes from cell towers back to core networks and the Internet.

If all goes as expected, 4G speeds will be 4 to 8 times faster than 3G network rates today, with coverage available over broader areas.

But for all of 4G’s promise, only a limited number of major U.S. markets will have access to 4G networks in 2010, and then largely only through data cards and 4G-to-Wi-Fi gateways.

The Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area is promised its first taste of 4G from Clearwire by year’s end, updating a slower, less standardized technology currently in place. Clearwire will be followed almost surely by Verizon’s 4G service in 2010, and AT&T in 2011 or 2012.

Each carrier’s path

To implement 4G technology, each carrier is making its own path toward higher data-transmission rates with more robust service. AT&T and Verizon have spent about $20 billion securing former analog television-broadcasting spectrum to roll out LTE, a 4G technology called Long Term Evolution that can’t be retrofit on current 3G spectrum owned by the firms.

Sprint has opted to go faster to market with WiMax, a technology that shares a fair amount in common with LTE, but which was farther along in hardware development when the carrier made its 4G commitment in 2006.

Sprint acquired a majority interest last year in a reconstituted Clearwire, once a competitor, to merge massive national spectrum holdings and leases. (For its part, Kirkland-based Clearwire faces the challenge both of building a national network nearly from scratch — securing tower rights, mounting gear, installing backhaul — and marketing a new brand name, Clear, and a set of offerings to customers that have never heard of the firm.)

Bellevue-based T-Mobile USA, caught with the smallest spectrum holdings, has a path that’s far less clear and has been coy about 4G plans.

AT&T strategy

AT&T believes it has the best strategy among its competitors, using HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) as a relatively inexpensive bridge between current 3G speeds and its future 4G deployment.

The company is now doubling the raw speed of the downstream side of its HSPA network from 3.6 to 7.2 Mbps. Practically speaking, that’s a jump from a range of a typical top rate of 1.7 Mbps up to as fast as 4.5 Mbps, based on reports from deployed networks in Europe. (AT&T isn’t yet suggesting a typical speed for 7.2 Mbps networks.)

HSPA can be as simple as a software upgrade of a cell-base station, and uses the same amount of spectrum in faster flavors. AT&T plans to have six cities set with the 7.2 Mbps HSPA this year, 19 more markets in 2010 (a total of 25 of the top 30 markets), and 90 percent of its 3G footprint in 2011, the firm has said.

AT&T said in mid-September at an industry conference that it wouldn’t be deploying another 3G technology, HSPA+, despite statements the firm made earlier this year. HSPA+ is commercially available in some countries at rates of 14 Mbps and 21 Mbps, but requires antenna upgrades and additional radio hardware.

For LTE, AT&T plans to overlay the technology on its existing 3G footprint, but the company is also expanding 3G coverage as it upgrades and expands cell network sites. Peter Rysavy, principal of Rysavy Research in Hood River, Ore., said in his analysis an LTE network of the type and spectrum allotment planned by AT&T and Verizon Wireless could deliver a wide range from 2 to 12 Mbps downstream.

Opting for LTE

Verizon Wireless put itself into a bit of a bind by opting for LTE. The company uses Qualcomm’s CDMA technology for its 2G and 3G networks, and is switching to the dominant worldwide GSM path for LTE. By not opting for faster CDMA 3G flavors, Verizon’s network effectively runs in a typical band from 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps.

That makes its move to much faster LTE far more critical, lest it fall behind its three competitors in meeting subscribers’ need for speed and bandwidth. Verizon plans to deploy in 30 markets in 2010, reaching up to 100 million people, and full coverage where it now has 3G by 2013.

However, Verizon’s early deployments will be focused on data for laptops, netbooks and gateways. LTE handsets aren’t expected to be widely available until 2011.

AT&T’s HSPA strategy plays in here, as faster flavors of HSPA are already deployed. “We’re going to have at least six new devices that are built on the HSPA 7.2 platform,” said AT&T’s Maxwell.

Sprint is in the same boat as Verizon, having pinned its 4G plans on Clearwire’s success in installing new WiMax service. Clearwire’s plans put it on parity: It should cover roughly a similar population as the other carriers over the same period.

Updating technology

T-Mobile is already planning updates to its 3G HSPA technology to the faster 7.2 Mbps speed that AT&T is installing. The company has 3G service in about 222 U.S. markets, for a possible reach of 160 million people.

But two weeks ago, T-Mobile revealed at an industry conference that the firm had turned on 20 HSPA+ base stations in Philadelphia operating at a raw rate of 21 Mbps. It plans to offer that data rate nationally in 2010.

T-Mobile can’t deploy LTE over its current spectrum holdings. That may help explain reports that T-Mobile’s parent, Deutsche Telekom, was talking with Clearwire to resell that company’s WiMax service.

T-Mobile lacks a true path to 4G, and may be short of spectrum to serve customers efficiently enough even at higher HSPA+ speeds.

The carriers have ambitious plans and can’t afford to wait as smartphone users demand ever more data traveling through the air. Toronto-based Rogers Wireless carries the North American bandwidth flag with HSPA+ at 21 Mbps rolling in five Canadian cities. U.S. carriers are itching to snatch that pennant.

Glenn Fleishman, a freelance technology writer in Seattle, frequently contributes to The Seattle Times.

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