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AT&T flicks the switch on LTE-A carrier aggregation, but you’ll have to wait to use it

According to a report from GigaOm, AT&T has gone live with LTE-A carrier aggregation in several markets, making it the first major US carrier to offer such data speeds. But so far it doesn't look like anyone has a handset that can make use of it.
March 7, 2014

We’ve been hearing about LTE-Advanced networking for a little while now, and whilst the option is slowly gaining momentum all across the globe, AT&T appears to be the first company in the US to roll-out its LTE-A service, or at least the carrier aggregation part of it anyway.

AT&T SVP of Network Technologies Kris Rinne told Gigaom in a recent interview, that the new network configuration has just been activated in several regions across the US, but only confirmed one city in which the service is currently live – Chicago.

So why the silence about the network upgrade, especially considering that AT&T will be the first to offer this service in the US? Well, it’s likely due to the fact that only a handful of the company’s customers can actually take advantage of it, AT&T hasn’t officially announced any smartphones that can make use of the service.

Although handset and chip manufacturers have been gearing up for faster data speeds for a while, the vast majority of these handsets are being sold in areas like South Korea, where LTE-A connections are more readily available. AT&T only recently announced its Unite hotspot carrier-aggregation device, which is currently the only device certified by the company to make use of these new speeds. The first smartphone that we are likely to see make use of AT&T’s upgraded network could be the new Samsung Galaxy S5. At Mobile World Congress, Samsung confirmed that the S5 would support carrier aggregation on some US networks, of which AT&T could be one.

samsung galaxy s5 x aa 3
The Samsung Galaxy S5 comes with Cat 4 LTE support, offering data speeds up to 150Mbps.

It’s also worth noting that there are other AT&T devices which, on paper, also already support carrier aggregation, such as the Snapdragon 800 powered LG G2. But before you get too excited, it’s likely that existing devices will require a firmware update before they could even potentially begin to work with multiple AT&T frequency bands. Hopefully we’ll hear more about new and existing handsets when AT&T is ready to announce its network update officially.

In case you’ve missed out on the all marketing buzz, LTE-A carrier aggregation essentially opens up two bands of traffic for your device to use for downloads, rather than operating on a single band, to increase your maximum data speeds. In other words, LTE-A gives customers access to more of the network to use at once.

For example, in Chicago, AT&T is running its fastest data speeds on two LTE bands, its 700 MHz and the 2100 MHz Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) frequencies. By aggregating those two channels together, AT&T will be able to send data over a 15 MHz-wide downlink, increasing theoretical download speeds to around 110 Mbps.

LTE Advanced Carrier Aggregation Qualcomm

So far, AT&T has only confirmed its new LTE-A service in Chicago, but other areas are set to follow suite, possibly including Baltimore, Dallas, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., all of which are currently undergoing 2G/3G to LTE transformations. There are also many other cities, like Chicago, where AT&T owns the AWS spectrum.

AT&T may well be the first U.S. provider to make use of LTE carrier aggregation, but all of the major operators have the technology in their roadmaps too. Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint have all been buying up the necessary spectrums, and should also be switching on their services in the not too distant future.

Are you looking forward to the LTE-A data revolution?