Streaming HD video. Uploading gigantic files. Surfing the web comfortably. These aren't things you'd normally expect on 3G. But T-Mobile's beefed up HSPA+ network, which I tested recently in the first city to launch, handled these tasks beautifully. Simultaneously.
While the other carriers are looking past 3G to 4G technologies—Sprint with its WiMax already up and running, and AT&T and Verizon banking on LTE—T-Mobile is the one doing the most to upgrade the 3G network it already has in place. Overhauling their existing HSPA 3G network to HSPA+ promises theoretical speeds of 21Mbps—three times faster than the 3G we know and don't quite love.
In my testing throughout Philadelphia, the first city to get the upgrade, I found that I was routinely getting triple the speeds we expect from 3G nationally—take a look at our nationwide 3G megatest if you need a refresher—with the HSPA+ network averaging in the high 3Mbps range and peaking at 7.81Mbps in one location.
The 3x jump makes a big difference. Consistently averaging download speeds in the high 3Mbps range might not seem like a terrific improvement, but in practice it puts the experience a lot closer to the broadband you take for granted at home than the crippled access you're often stuck with on 3G. And I really tried to push the HSPA+ network by using the internet the way I would at home, at my most extreme. At one point, I was uploading a several-hundred megabyte file to FTP briskly (around 150KB/sec), downloading a torrent even more briskly (~350KB/sec), and still loading web pages quickly and all at once, instead of piece by frustrating piece. At the end of the day, when I was done with all my testing and just catching up with the stuff I follow on the internet, I didn't immediately ditch the 3G and jump back on Wi-Fi. I didn't feel the need to.
Philadelphia is the first city to get pumped up to HSPA+, though T-Mobile is aiming for coverage in major cities across the nation by the end of the year. Since it's not a new network, just an expansion of their current one, many customers who live in areas with HSPA+ coverage will see improvements in speed with the gear they're using right now. Anything that's HSPA 7.2 compatible—that includes HTC HD2, myTouch, Moto CLIQ, Moto CLIQ XT, Samsung Behold II, HTC Touch Pro 2, Dash 3G—will notice snappier speeds. But to really see things crank, you'll need a dedicated HSPA+ device, and T-Mobile's first is the webConnect Rocket USB stick. I tried out the Rocket, which works with Mac and PC, all over Philly, and was impressed with the results.
I tried the same tests we used in our nationwide 3G test: several runs of speedtest.net, several timed page loads of the Wikimedia Commons Hubble page, and several timed loads of a big Hubble image itself.
Here's where I went. Some of the places were suggested by T-Mobile as optimal testing spots—and cheating or not, I followed them in search of the biggest bandwidth readings. But even when I was off on my own, I found that my speeds rarely dipped to levels currently attainable by standard 3G, and were often, as you can see, much much faster, including latency under 100ms at almost every location.
View Philly HSPA+ Testing in a larger map
The webConnect Rocket USB stick is on sale now and can be purchased for $99 with a 2-year contract or $199 without one. With the contract, you get T-Mobile's EvenMore Data Plan, which will run you $59.99/mo for 5GB data or $29.99/mo for 200MB data, and without it the Rocket gets the EvenMore Data Plus Plan, costing $49.99/mo for 5GB and $19.99 a month for 200MB. If you pay full price up front, the stick pays for itself in 10 months, which might be a good deal, as it's just about how long HSPA+ will enjoy its mobile broadband crown until AT&T and Verizon start deploying LTE in 2011.
That 5GB data cap, however, could be a problem. With the 3G speeds we're used to just surfing the web can be a chore. Downloading big files or watching HD video were usually out of the question. But since the HSPA+ feels like your broadband at home, it's easy to treat it that way, and I can imagine users racking up 5GB dangerously quickly. By my back of the napkin calculations, at the speeds I saw, it'd only take about 4 hours of continuously downloading files to eat up your month's allowance. I forsee customers clamoring for beefed up plans to match T-Mobile's beefed up network.
T-Mobile says they are planning "broad national deployment" for HSPA+ by the end of 2010 and will be naming specific cities at the CTIA conference starting next week. How aggressively they roll out the upgrades will determine the fate of HSPA+, if it emerges as a worthwhile pre-4G alternative or if it falls to the footnotes of mobile broadband history. But if you have the need for speed and HSPA+ makes its way to your city, it's definitely worth your attention. It's so fast, you might forget it's 3G.