AT&T: still no speed guarantees or smartphones for LTE

AT&T\'s new coverage map showing cities with LTE service.

As you may have heard, AT&T officially launched its first salvo of live Long Term Evolution (LTE) services Sunday, in five cities: Chicago, Dallas, Austin, Houston and Atlanta. Above is the new updated map that is serving as Ma Bell’s announcement platform for its clear-as-mud 4G rollout; if you are following this story closely you know that in January AT&T decided to call its existing HSPA+ services “4G,” even though real faster speeds weren’t (and still aren’t) widely available across the entire AT&T service area.

Never you mind! AT&T has a really big problem right now with its planned digestion of T-Mobile and — well, it probably can’t be bothered with marketing semantics. Or with nitpickers like us pointing out that even though AT&T launched its LTE services in the “summer” around here the third week of school is usually seen as “fall.” And hey Kris Rinne — where are those LTE smartphones you promised us? Remember, the ones with all the radios in them — to support multiple bands of LTE, as well as all the flavors of AT&T’s GSM network along with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Maybe we’ll see some by Christmas, when we can use them to keep warm for the short while that their batteries last?

Seriously, though, it is heartening to see AT&T launching its LTE services with some grainy-edge coverage “maps” which are so small (and not available for zooming in or out) as to be not very useful in determining actual LTE coverage areas, other than to say, well, if you are in the middle of any one of the launch cities then you can probably expect coverage. But out at the fringes? Good luck finding any LTE bars. (Or if you live on the south side of Chicago, which apparently is not getting any LTE love from the map copied below.) And remember: It’s only hotspots and USB modems for AT&T LTE to start with, so no smartphones. Yet.

Of course, it’s not like AT&T competitor and 4G LTE trailblazer Verizon Wireless is perfect; a look at Verizon’s similar coverage map for Chicago shows a bit more granularity and the ability to zoom in and out (to help see those annoying non-covered patches of territory) but Verizon helpfully masks your data-gathering with big road maps and huge icons for Verizon Wireless stores. After all, that’s what you really wanted to find out, right?

Verizon 4G LTE coverage map for Chicago.

Kudos once again to Sprint and Clearwire for having much better clarity when it comes to coverage maps; you can go see for yourself, but Sprint has a system for letting you know if you can expect to have 4G coverage inside a building or not, while Clearwire still shows actual tower locations.

However: The real kicker for AT&T’s LTE services are the lack of any number attached to the expected speeds — like with its HSPA+ service, AT&T isn’t committing to any download speed number for LTE yet, only to say… wait for it… it’s… FASTER. Here is the official AT&T LTE FAQ answer for the question “How fast is AT&T 4G?”

How fast is AT&T 4G?
AT&T’s 4G strategy, including HSPA+ with enhanced backhaul and LTE, delivers super fast broadband speeds. 4G HSPA+ with enhanced backhaul delivers speeds up to 4X faster than AT&T’s already fast mobile broadband network. And as it is deployed, 4G LTE will deliver even faster speeds than 4G HSPA+. The combination of the two technologies provides the best option for your wireless work or entertainment.

Note: Limited 4G LTE availability in select markets. 4G speeds delivered by LTE, or HSPA+ with enhanced backhaul, where available. Deployment ongoing. Compatible device and data plan required. LTE is a trademark of ETSI. Learn more at AT&T 4G.

So… buyer beware, I guess. Or… let our merger happen, and it will all get better! Right!

About Paul Kapustka

Paul Kapustka is a longtime journalist who has spent more than two decades covering the information technology business, Paul most recently has been focusing on mobility and how it has changed the computing and collaborative landscape. His newest project outside Mobile Enterprise 360 is a research and analysis operation called WiFi Journal. He is also editor in chief of Mobile Sports Report, which covers the intersection of mobile technology and sports business. Paul is also the founder of Sidecut Reports, a research firm that covered the emergence of 4G technology in the cellular marketplace.