The news comes just months before Apple is expected to take the wraps off its second generation iPhone\t, which, unlike the existing version, is expected to make broad use of 3G wireless technology. The current version of the touch-screen handset only functions on slower, 2.5G networks like AT&T's Edge.
The planned expansion is expected to deliver 3G services to nearly 350 leading U.S. markets by the end of 2008, AT&T said in a statement, including all of the top 100 U.S. cities. The 3G initiative will also include the roll out of more than 1,500 additional cell towers nationwide.
"With these aggressive initiatives, we're expanding the scope and the speed of our 3G capabilities, connecting people with their world and enabling more customers to do more with their wireless devices, wherever they may be," said AT&T Wireless chief executive Ralph de la Vega. "We're also planning for the future by establishing a clear path to a 4G network that will meet the needs of our customers for years to come."
While AT&T's Edge network supports a theoretical maximum download speed of is 473.6 Kilobits per second (Kbps), real-world speeds are presumed to be much closer to 200 Kbps. By comparison, the wireless provider says its 3G network now delivers typical downlink speeds ranging between 600 and 1,400 Kbps, as well as faster uplink speeds, ranging from 500 and 800 Kbps.
Though widely renowned for its advancements in software and interface design with the iPhone, Apple has been on the receiving end of much criticism for its decision to forgo 3G support in the inaugural version of the handset in favor of 2.5G support. The move, many argue, often results in a less than optimal web browsing experience, where web pages sometimes take several minutes -- rather than several seconds -- to fully load.
For its part, Apple has long maintained that a 3G iPhone is within its sights. However, company chief executive Steve Jobs has said that battery life on 3G devices has thus far proven too poor to commission a release.
"We've got to see the battery lives for 3G get back up into the five-plus-hour range,'' he said last September during the UK iPhone launch. "Hopefully we'll see that late next year.''
Since then, however, reports from at least one mainstream media publication have suggested a 3G iPhone could be ready for market by late May or early June. AT&T Inc. chief executive Randall Stephenson has also vouched for the arrival of a 3G iPhone in the near term, claiming in November that customers would "have it next year."
In some related news out of AT&T on Wednesday, the company also said its plans to complete the nation's first High Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA)-enabled network by the middle of the year.
The deployment of HSUPA is the next step in the evolution of its 3G network with further enhancements and speed boosts expected in the near future. This year's HSUPA deployment will complete the transition of the AT&T 3G network to High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) standards, the carrier said, marking the only full transition by any wireless provider in the United States to this latest generation of wireless broadband capabilities.
"From the beginning, our wireless network has been designed with the future in mind," said de la Vega. "The capabilities of 3G standards will continue to expand over the next several years, enabling us to stay well ahead of our customers' broadband needs."