T-Mo’s HSPA+ Upgrade to Hit the Coasts First

T-Mobile CTO Cole Brodman with Om

T-Mobile may end up having one of the fastest mobile broadband networks in the country — at least for a short time, as it rolls out HSPA+ upgrades across its network this year, which will offer theoretical speeds of 21 Mbps down. And in an interview with me yesterday, T-Mobile’s Dave Mayo, VP of engineering, hinted that the first cities to get it (outside of Philly, which already has a test network) will be located on the coasts.

Mayo said that T-Mobile has already upgraded the existing HSPA software in “major cities” along the California Coast and said “major cities from Washington, D.C. to Boston” will have it on the East Coast, including Philadelphia, where it’s already live. My requests for more information on the timing and exact cities were denied, but my guess is T-Mobile, which said it would have HSPA+ deployed by the middle end of 2010 and that the network would offer access to 205 million, is waiting for devices and better backhaul before flipping the switch.

Currently T-Mobile has about 10 devices that can use its existing HSPA network, which offers download speeds of up to 7.2 Mbps and no HSPA+ capable gadgets. The relatively young 3G network was rolled out in 2008, but has several compelling devices such as the Nexus One (s goog), the MyTouch¬†and unlocked iPhones (s aapl) scavenged from AT&T’s network. AT&T is (s T) currently deploying HSPA coverage, but will skip HSPA+ and go straight to the Long Term Evolution network beginning with trials in 2011.

However AT&T is currently beefing up its mobile backhaul faster than T-Mobile is, at least judging by Ma Bell’s statements to the world (GigaOM Pro, sub req’d). Mayo at T-Mobile said the operator doesn’t have the advantage of a fixed wireline network, but it has deployed fiber to 7 percent of its towers with 20 Mbps of capacity on those fiber strands. He also said that within the next few weeks the operator will turn on fiber to about 25 percent of its towers.

When it comes to mobile broadband, the HSPA+ deployment puts T-Mobile in a singular position with regards to the other national operators. Bend Broadband, an Oregon cable operator, also has an HSPA+ network with faster speeds.¬† None of the big carriers in the U.S. is rolling out HSPA+, although a spokesman for T-Mobile points out that more than 25 operators have deployed HSPA+ so there are plenty of devices available. However, the speeds should beat out those offered by WiMAX (maybe even on older HSPA gear) and will likely compete with early Long Term Evolution deployments, especially LTE’s slower end. For example, Verizon (s vz) expects users to see speeds on its network of between 5-12 Mbps down.

T-Mobile’s unique bet on HSPA+ is probably dictated in part by the high costs of rolling out entirely new infrastructure to build an LTE network, especially so soon after it upgraded to 3G from 2G. However, Mayo said the 3.5G network is an asset as more consumers pick up smartphones and want a fast surfing experience on them (sorry iPad fans, no word yet on T-Mobile’s plans for Micro SIMs). He believes T-Mo’s network will provide a good experience for those who want voice and mobile data on a handset.

I think that’s true, especially since voice and converged handsets for LTE networks are farther out than carriers may want us to believe. Plus, while a select few with deep pockets or mobile lifestyles plunk down $60 a month for a data card or personal hotspot, smartphones will be the mainstream consumer device for accessing the mobile web for a while yet. So until about 2012 or later, when LTE handsets hit the mainstream, I think T-Mo may have a slight advantage over other mobile broadband providers. After that, HSPA+ may look more like a handicap.