AT&T (NYSE:T) is racing to play catch-up and then some with its archrival Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), doubling the reach of its LTE network in one year but still falling far behind Verizon's sprawling LTE footprint.
AT&T said its LTE network covers more than 150 million people in 103 U.S. markets, more than double the POPs AT&T covered with LTE at year-end 2011. The company intends to broaden LTE coverage to 250 million people by year-end 2013 and 300 million by year-end 2014.
Among AT&T's newest LTE market rollouts are Denver; Eugene and Corvallis, Ore., Toledo and Columbus, Ohio; Charleston, Columbia and Greenville, SC; and Jonesboro, Ark.
Earlier this month, AT&T unveiled its multibillion-dollar Project Velocity IP (or VIP) initiative, which entails its ramped-up LTE expansion as well as related deployment of more than 10,000 new macrocells, 40,000 small cells and 1,000 distributed antenna systems (DAS) throughout its network. The plan, which also includes several wireline initiatives, also calls for AT&T to use spectrum that it acquired through 40 transactions (many of which were in the secondary spectrum market) plus the company's 30 MHz of WCS spectrum.
"AT&T is putting its money where its mouth is, outspending Verizon Wireless to improve its network with the goal of catching up to (if not supplanting) Verizon Wireless as the provider with the best wireless network," wrote independent analyst Roger Entner, a regular FierceWireless contributor, in a recent column.
Yet AT&T has a way to go before it can challenge Verizon on LTE coverage. Verizon launched LTE on Dec. 6, 2010, making it the world's first Tier 1 wireless provider to build and operate an LTE network. As of Nov. 15, Verizon had deployed LTE in 441 U.S. markets covering some 250 million POPs. Its end-of-year LTE coverage target is 260 million POPs.
Of course, AT&T can argue that its widespread HSPA+ network, which it calls 4G, provides a more robust backup to its LTE coverage than Verizon's CDMA network can deliver. In fact, Verizon has been especially aggressive in deploying LTE specifically because it needs to move customers off of its aging CDMA network.
Third-place U.S. mobile carrier Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) is far behind the two market leaders. Sprint has disclosed more than 125 cities where it is building out LTE. The operator officially launched LTE in July when it switched on service in five major metropolitan areas--Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City and San Antonio--plus a handful of smaller markets nearby.
T-Mobile, meanwhile, is hustling to refarm its spectrum to make room for LTE in the AWS 1.7/2.1 GHz band. The operator is shifting its HSPA+ service from that band to 1900 MHz, where it had been offering only GSM service. T-Mobile hopes to begin rolling out LTE in 2013.
In addition, T-Mobile's planned acquisition of MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) will enable the former to merge MetroPCS' existing LTE network into its own planned LTE network and refarm MetroPCS' 1900 MHz CDMA spectrum for HSPA+ services. The combined company should have enough spectrum to offer 20x20 MHz LTE in many major markets.
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