NPD: One-third of U.S. smartphones in Q4 ran LTE, WiMAX or HSPA+

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More than one-third of U.S. smartphones sold in the third quarter ran on faster network technology, including LTE, WiMAX and HSPA+, according to a new study from research firm NPD Group.

HTC Thunderbolt Verizon LTE

The HTC ThunderBolt was the country's best-selling LTE smartphone in the fourth quarter.

The research firm, which categorizes the three network technologies as "4G," said that 4G smartphone sales increased to 35 percent of the market in the fourth quarter, up from 6 percent of the market in the fourth quarter of 2010. Unsurprisingly, the most popular network technology for smartphones was HSPA+, which netted 22 percent of 4G smartphone sales. Both AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) and T-Mobile USA tout HSPA+ as a 4G technology and market their smartphones as such.

Meanwhile, LTE-enabled handsets accounted for 7 percent of the smartphone market. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), which currently supports 12 LTE smartphones, has been touting them heavily, especially via its promotion to double the data allotment of LTE smartphone customers. AT&T currently offers four LTE smartphones. According to NPD, more than a quarter--26 percent--of consumers who purchased LTE phones were specifically seeking 4G technology in 2011, compared with just 9 percent of all smartphone buyers.

WiMAX smartphones made up 7 percent of smartphone sales in the fourth quarter, according to NPD. Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), which offers mobile WiMAX service via Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR), still markets its WiMAX phones as "4G" devices despite its impending move to LTE.

According to NPD though, the move toward LTE means that it will soon become the benchmark for high-end smartphones. "HSPA+, which has combined high throughput with practical power efficiency, has been a compelling evolutionary 4G upgrade option for carriers upgrading GSM networks," Ross Rubin, executive director of Connected Intelligence for the NPD Group, said in a statement. "With all major U.S. carriers committing to LTE as their 4G future, it is clearly the cellular network technology that will determine the baseline for the next generation of advanced smartphones."

The most popular HSPA+ smartphone sold last year was Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 4S, the most popular LTE smartphone was the HTC ThunderBolt, and the hottest selling WiMAX smartphone was the HTC Evo, according to NPD.

For more:
- see this release
- see this The Verge article

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