T-Mobile Extends HSPA+ Ahead of the Data Demand Wave

T-Mobile continues its 3.5G network rollout today, with an additional 18 markets gaining access to HSPA+ speeds of up to 21 Mbps. Including this month’s launch of the myTouch 3G Slide handset, the carrier now offers 15 devices that take advantage of the faster HSPA+ network, although only one supports the maximum throughput. A conversation I had with T-Mobile reinforced the notion that a faster network breeds more data consumption — with HSPA+, up to seven times more, in some cases.

I spoke with Chris Hillabrant, regional VP of engineering and operations for T-Mobile, about the company’s network expansion and how the faster available speeds are changing the way consumers use mobile broadband. “In New York, where HSPA+ is available, we’ve seen a 700 percent increase in demand for data,” Hillabrant told me. “And in Philadelphia, we saw nearly 40 percent growth in traffic in the first 40 days of availability.” So how long can T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network handle the growing demand?

“We feel very good about our growth,” Hillabrant said when asked that very question. “Our fiber [backhaul] facilities are highly scalable and we have plenty of wireless spectrum in the big markets, plus efficiencies are gained as we get faster devices on the network. I don’t see any reason we can’t continue to ride the wave ahead of data demand.” Indeed, Hillabrant sounded calm and confident about both backhaul and wireless supply — a refreshing position considering larger U.S. carriers like AT&T (s t) are moving from unlimited smartphone data plans to tiered pricing to help manage the supply of data services.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, is sticking with unlimited data for the time being. Instead of adding incremental costs for overages, the carrier recently eliminated existing ones and said that instead it may slow down connections exceeding more than 5 GB of data in a given billing cycle. I also asked if T-Mobile was considering availability of portable hotspot devices on its network; I use a MiFi on Verizon’s (s vz) network and Sprint’s Overdrive (s s) supports its 4G network. There’s currently no HSPA+ MiFi for T-Mobile, but such a product has been discussed internally, so there’s potential for a fast portable hotspot down the road. For now, Hillibrant laughingly but accurately suggested that I can use the Portable Hotspot functionality native to Android 2.2 on my Google Nexus One (s goog) with T-Mobile SIM. Maybe I don’t need that MiFi after all?

With Verizon and AT&T still using standard 3G technologies, T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network is a closer comparison to Sprint’s 4G offering, which uses WiMAX. Indeed, T-Mobile claims “4G speeds” now when discussing the maturing infrastructure — a clear swipe at Sprint. Semantics and verbal positioning aside, T-Mobile’s new network actually compare favorably to that of Sprint’s, both in speeds and coverage.

I haven’t tested Sprint’s 4G network recently, but my prior hands-on yielded download speeds of between 4 and 5 Mbps — the same as my colleague Stacey recently noticed — when paired with new equipment. But I didn’t have to buy or use new equipment when testing T-Mobile’s next-generation network; just like the 15 handsets T-Mobile offers with a 7.2 Mbps radio, my Google Nexus One enjoys 4 Mbps downloads due to HSPA+ compatibility. And my hands-on testing of the webConnect Rocket data card on HSPA+ pulled data from the web at more than 9 Mbps, or roughly double what I’ve seen from WiMAX. T-Mobile is quietly taking the lead when it comes to fast mobile broadband coverage areas, too. With the newly announced expansion areas, it now boasts 75 million points of presence, or POPs — you can check your local coverage here. Sprint claims 43 million as of the launch of the HTC EVO earlier this month, the first phone in the U.S. to use a 4G network.

After my conversation with Hillabrant, it occurred to me that the iPhone-AT&T phenomenon may have been the best thing to happen to T-Mobile in some time. With all of the focus on iPhone owners using up a disproportionate amount of AT&T’s network — AT&T data demand is up more than 5,000 percent since the introduction of the iPhone, as discussed in a recent GigaOM Pro report (subscription required) — the spotlight has been off of T-Mobile. And that has given the No. 4 carrier in the U.S. some quiet time to ramp up a faster wireless network that covers more customers while nobody was looking. By the end of this year, when completion of the HSPA+ rollout is expected, T-Mobile figures it will be able to cover 185 million POPs with 21 Mbps wireless access and plenty of fiber backhaul to keep the data flowing.