2012 in review: AT&T pushes 4G LTE
AT&T in 2012: It recovered from the loss of the T-Mobile deal light up a 4G LTE network
As 2012 winds down, we take a look at the year each major carrier had.
While AT&T officially ended its bid to buy T-Mobile in late December of 2011, it was dealing with the fallout for much of 2012. As the one trying to do the acquisition, the impact wasn't as large on AT&T as it was on T-Mobile, so AT&T was still able to make solid progress on its 4G LTE network.
AT&T finished its last reported quarter with 105.9 million overall subscribers, according to its third-quarter financial statement. The company is doing quite well with smartphones, as it activated 4.7 million iPhones during its latest reported quarter and 63.8 percent of its postpaid (contract) subscribers were on a smartphones. Notable smartphones on AT&T in 2012 included the iPhone 5, Galaxy S3, HTC One X, HTC One X+, Windows Phone 8X, the LG Optimus G and the Nokia Lumia 900 and Lumia 920.
AT&T 4G LTE
AT&T was not able to roll out 4G LTE as quickly as Verizon Wireless but it has made steady progress with its own high-speed data network. AT&T now offers 4G LTE in 102 markets and this includes many major metropolitans across the country.
Not only has it been able to roll out 4G LTE network to many cities, it has also provided blazing-fast upload and download speeds. We've seen some crazy peak download speeds (over 30 Mbps in some cases) and AT&T has also provided consistent speeds and coverage. Unlike most of the competition, AT&T also has an HSPA+ network backing up its 4G LTE network and this lets users maintain fast speeds outside of 4G LTE networks.
This has also led AT&T to advertise that it has the "nation's largest 4G network" and it does ... kind of. It definitely trails behind Verizon when it comes to 4G LTE coverage but when you factor in its HSPA+ network which has been labeled "4G," it has a better story to tell.
Mobile Share Plan
After Verizon introduced its shared data plan AT&T followed up with its own Mobile Share plan. This was actually a major change for how AT&T charges its customers for its services and it shows how prolific smartphones and tablets are becoming.
Instead of paying for a bucket of voice minutes and texts, users pay an access fee for unlimited calls and text messages. This device access fee depends on which type of device you're using and how much data you want. For example, the lowest smartphone data tier will cost you $45 a month for voice and texts.
As for data, AT&T moved away from its previous tierd which included a low tier and an unlimited one. Now, you can get 1GB for $40 a month, 4GB for $70 a month, 6GB for $90 a month and it keeps going until you hit 20GB for $200 a month.
The thing about the Mobile Share plan is that you can use that data across up to 10 smartphones or tablets. You do have to pay an access fee for each device but this can make it a lot easier to share data across multiple devices and people. For example, family plans in the past required each person to get a full data plan as opposed to divying it up.
It's unclear how well Mobile Share is being received by consumers but AT&T said 89 percent of its smartphone users are on a FamilyTalk, Mobile Share or business plan. AT&T is corralling users onto Mobile Share plans to use things like FaceTime, so users may be using it whether they like it or not.
Longer term, the Mobile Share plan indicates that AT&T is saying "good bye" to unlimited data plans. Sure, some users are still grandfathered in but I expect this usage-based pricing model to be the standard moving forward for AT&T.
All of the carriers are also going to be facing a spectrum crunch, as consumers continue to use more mobile data but the amount of available spectrum is not growing at the same rate. We've been hearing about this for years but we may start to see the real impact soon.
Spectrum was one of the major reasons AT&T was trying to buy T-Mobile, as it wanted to use T-Mobile's existing infrastructure and airwaves to bolster AT&T's 4G LTE network. That deal fell through and AT&T had to give T-Mobile some of its existing spectrum as part of a breakup fee. Look for AT&T to be aggressive about acquiring more spectrum but it will be constrained because it will have to be more strategic about the size of its purchases.
AT&T will also be facing revitalized competition over the next few years. T-Mobile will be merging with MetroPCS and while 2013 may be a bit messy for the new entity, it should emerge as a stronger competitor which has enough resources to take on AT&T. Sprint is also being mostly acquired by Softbank and it will likely make a major push with unlimited data plans.
AT&T in 2013
AT&T is heading into 2013 with a lot of positives and a few negatives. On the bright side, its 4G LTE network should only get better and expand to more markets. Its network is also set up in a way which makes it relatively easy to get the big-name devices without handset makers having to do too much tinkering - this could lead to some exclusives in 2013.
That exclusivity advantage is no longer as important as when it was the only carrier to offer the iPhone, as users can now get Apple's smartphone on Verizon, Sprint and a variety of prepaid carriers. Other high-profile devices like the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2 are coming to all the major carriers at once. Still, AT&T is looking pretty strong when it comes to smartphone adoption and look for that trend to accelerate next year.
Look for AT&T to get creative in 2013, as it's already testing the waters with a plan to subsidize tablets when you sign a long-term data plan. The carrier has also used its network for a variety of products including a dog-tracking collar and a connected medicine container which can help you keep track of your pills.
Also look for AT&T to make a major move to acquire some more spectrum for its 4G LTE network and beyond. An outright acquisition of a smaller carrier is probably out of the question but perhaps a spectrum swap with Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint or even Dish Network could be in the cards.