Users Report Faster EDGE Speeds Ahead of iPhone Launch

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Users experienced substantial speed increases in AT&T's data network Thursday night and Friday, fueling speculation that long-rumored infrastructure upgrades paid off just before the iPhone went on sale.

On Thursday night, AT&T wireless customers using non-Apple cell phones began citing a bump in throughput on the EDGE-based data network, posting test results online at places such as Howard Forums. Most reported speeds of 200 kilobits per second, more than double the speeds that EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) had been delivering earlier.

EDGE advertises in-the-field download speeds of between 70 kbps and 135 kbps, though its technical ceiling is 384 kbps. Many users who noted the impressive increases said that their maximum transfer rate on AT&T before Thursday night was 70 kbps. Even the 200-kbps download speeds being reported, however, are a far cry from the numbers achieved by much faster 3G data networks operated by the likes of Verizon.

Return on Investment?

"Maybe you're seeing that US$50,000,000 they invested into their data network handling capabilities specifically for the iPhone launch?" posited one user identified as "EstorilM" on Howard Forum.

Though AT&T has bragged of spending $50 million this year to get "iReady," a term company spokesman Mark Siegel used Friday, chatter among would-be iPhone buyers has included the phrase "Operation Fine EDGE," reportedly an internal code name for back-end updates designed to boost data performance.

Siegel denied that AT&T has hit an "on switch" to increase EDGE speeds. "We've been enhancing EDGE since we first introduced it," he said. "We're not making any different performance claims today." Instead, he stressed that several factors could combine to give users a "burst that can exceed the normal" speeds on AT&T.

EDGE performance played a big part in early reviews of Apple's iPhone, the new mobile phone/video iPod/Internet communicator that the Cupertino, California, company launched at 6 p.m. on June 29. Across the board, reviewers bemoaned the device's slow browsing speed whenever it went out of range of a Wi-Fi network. This characteristic was easily the least attractive part of the iPhone-AT&T package.

Even Apple CEO Steve Jobs isn't entirely satisfied with AT&T's performance. "EDGE is good, but you'd like it to be faster," he told The New York Times. Both he and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson downplayed the impact of EDGE on iPhone purchases and after-sale customer satisfaction, and suggested that much faster local Wi-Fi networks would pick up any slack in browsing speed.

"People are in areas with Wi-Fi much more than they think," Jobs said in a Q&A posted by USA Today yesterday.

iReady or Not

The reported speed increase may be temporary, since AT&T's data network, like those of other mobile carriers, is a shared resource. Performance might show a smart increase if, for example, additional capacity were added while the number of users stayed the same.

That's what AT&T hinted was happening. "Absolutely, we've added capacity" to accommodate the expected influx of new subscribers this weekend as the iPhone goes on sale, according to AT&T's Siegel. "We've spent $16 billion overall in the last two years to improve all-around capacity, and $50 million to get the EDGE network 'iReady,'" he added. "We want to make sure we have enough capacity for the iPhone."

This story, "Users Report Faster EDGE Speeds Ahead of iPhone Launch" was originally published by Computerworld.

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