Sprint’s 4G Network Goes Live in San Francisco, AT&T Turns to Wi-Fi

Now we just need "your brain on 4G" commercials to warn us of the dangers of excessive Facebook, Youtube and Twitter usage.

Sprint flipped the on switch to its 4G network in four California cities today: San Francisco, Oakland, Palo Alto and San Jose. Meanwhile, AT&T is taking a much different path to ease network congestion on its 3G network—it’s increasing its Wi-Fi network coverage to get more users off of its cellular network in busy metro areas. Call it counter-intuitive if you want but AT&T has to do something given its recent moves to prevent FaceTime calling via 3G on the iPhone 4, restructuring its data plans and slow 4G rollout.

Sprint’s 4G activation in the Bay Area brings its total number of markets offering WiMax to 70+. While many cities are covered, Sprint activated its first 4G market (Baltimore) way back in September, 2008. While Verizon has been lagging behind, its 4G network is expected to quickly eclipse Sprint’s. AT&T’s coming 4G will as well once it finally gets off the ground. Even T-Mobile’s 4G network (more aptly named 3.5G) boasts 100 metropolitan areas and coverage of 200 million customers. Sprint might have been the first, but it certainly hasn’t been the fastest.

Meanwhile, AT&T has been expanding its Wi-Fi network coverage. Its own 4G network—which uses LTE technology (long term evolution) like Verizon—will not get off the ground until the latter half of 2011. That leaves the vast majority of its customers stuck on 3G until sometime in 2012. For heavily populated urban areas with disposable income, this means literal hordes of iPhone users gobbling down cellular data as quickly as possible.

A temporary stop-gap measure is increasing its Wi-Fi presence. AT&T has already been offering Wi-Fi for free to its customers around Times Square in New York and is expanding that zone. Other areas in New York are seeing Wi-Fi hotspots from the carrier pop up as well. Eventually, the carrier will have Wi-Fi ready to handle data loads wherever large numbers of people gather (stadiums, landmarks, etc.).

It’s funny to see AT&T try to ease the load on its strained 3G network by deploying Wi-Fi while its competitors roll out their own 4G networks. However, while Verizon does have a legitimate head start, T-Mobile and Sprint’s 4G networks will start to look outdated when Verizon and AT&T’s LTE 4G networks go fully operational everywhere.

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