LTE in the USA: An in-depth look at LTE coverage, competition, devices and pricing

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Phil 

Goldstein

The United States may not have been the first to launch LTE  (TeliaSonera launched the first commercial LTE service in Stockholm and Oslo in December 2009), but it is clearly leading the way in LTE today with the most coverage, devices and subscribers than any other country in the world.

Thanks to the aggressive efforts of Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), which launched LTE in December 2010 and now covers 250 million POPs with LTE, as well as initiatives from MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), MetroPCS, U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) and Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP), the United States is considered the world's leading LTE market. According to Informa Telecoms & Media September estimates, the United States and Canada account for 54 percent of all LTE subscribers worldwide.

In terms of U.S. competition, Verizon is ahead. Analysts I spoke with noted that despite Verizon's highly publicized LTE network outages in 2011, the carrier has used its aggressive LTE buildout to solidify its reputation as the provider of the nation's largest, fastest and most reliable network. Yet Verizon's first-mover advantage is under threat by AT&T, and to a lesser extent Sprint, as those operators rush to catch up in terms of coverage and device selection.  

However, it will likely be the end of 2013 before we have a clear picture of the LTE competitive scenario in the United States. T-Mobile USA plans to launch LTE next year, covering 200 million POPs by the end of 2013. And T-Mobile's buildout could be boosted by MetroPCS' spectrum--if T-Mobile's deal to acquire MetroPCS is approved--since T-Mobile has said it will be able to launch 20x20 MHz LTE channels in many markets with Metro's spectrum. Such channels would give T-Mobile a fast LTE network that could make up for its late entry to the LTE party.

"I think right now if you're looking at the market as a whole you're definitely going to have to wait [until the end of 2013]," said Current Analysis analyst Weston Henderek. "With AT&T and Verizon Wireless, it's here today. The rest of the market is still way behind."

William Ho, an independent wireless analyst, said that in major cities the competition is fierce now and will continue to be so during the next several months, especially as Sprint builds its LTE network. However, LTE has not yet made its way to secondary and tertiary markets, and those consumers will be left out, he noted.  

As carriers build their LTE networks, most are also in the midst of planning their next steps. Due to their all-IP design, LTE networks can support new services not possible on current 3G networks.

"The next phase is to see how these guys try and innovative around the LTE ecosystem," said Tolaga Research analyst Phil Marshall. "I think that's when you'll really start see the competition ramp, whether it's in pricing strategies or in terms of the types of services that they bundle in."

Marshall said that services like Voice over LTE, HD Voice, Rich Communications Services and unified communication services will likely be introduced next year, but will be rolled out gradually as customers move off of legacy voice and messaging services.

Further, carriers in the coming years will likely begin adding the new LTE Advanced standard, including enhanced intercell interference cancellation, 8x8 MIMO and the ability to perform carrier aggregation to meld noncontiguous spectrum together into fatter pipes, Marshall said. However, these too will be adopted gradually, he noted. "These are huge architectural changes that are being applied," Marshall said.

Despite the relative maturity of the U.S. LTE market, and the continued proliferation of LTE smartphones and data-only devices, not all is rosy. U.S. consumers still pay a higher price per bit for LTE data than their counterparts in Europe and Asia, according to a recent Wireless Intelligence report. And LTE roaming likely won't come into play until 2014 at the earliest, which could affect smaller carriers like Leap, U.S. Cellular and C Spire Wireless. 

In light of all of that, FierceBroadbandWireless has produced a comprehensive look at the state of the U.S. LTE market, including coverage maps, data on speeds and performance, technical specifications, pricing and devices. Our work is supplemented by research firms including ABI Research, Informa, the GSMA, Mosaik Solutions, RootMetrics and others. Please let us know what you think of our report. Enjoy! --Phil