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We’re going to be hearing a lot about next-generation (4G) cellular networks in the U.S. over the next few years, even though it seems like we’ve only just begun widespread adoption of 3G technology. Verizon started rolling out its 3G network back in 2002 — well before the iPhone 3G and the recent wave of smartphones. Now many cellular providers are figuring out their plans for 4G, with hopes to start rolling out the technology within a couple years.

Today, AT&T announced the equipment suppliers for the company’s 4G technology, dubbed LTE (Long Term Evolution). The supplier choices, Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson, shouldn’t be too surprising to those who’ve followed the evolution of LTE and 3G networks. Both companies also supplied the technology for AT&T’s 3G network, and were also selected by Verizon last year for its own LTE plans.

By sticking with Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson, AT&T hopes to make the transition to LTE fairly painless. 3G Equipment delivered by both companies this year will be easily upgradeable to LTE.

AT&T doesn’t plan to begin LTE deployment until late 2011. To tide users over until then, the company will continue its upgrade of 3G sites to the new HSPA 7.2 technology, which raises 3G download speeds to 7.2 megabits per second.

AT&T has already completed the HSPA software upgrade across its network, but the equipment that actually makes the network perform faster is still being rolled out. Full HSPA deployment isn’t expected until 2012. AT&T expects the deployment of HSPA, along with enhanced fiber connectivity across the network, to help with its LTE roll out.

The company’s expected capital expenditures in 2010 will be between $18 and $19 billion, with a $2 billion increase over last year’s investment in its wireless network and backhaul. AT&T also plans to add 2,000 cellular sites, along with other upgrades that will help network performance and capacity, throughout the year.

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