WiMAX, LTE and HSPA+: Comparing operators' 4G coverage areas

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There's been plenty of noise recently over the launch of 4G in all its colors: LTE, WiMAX and (according to some) HSPA+. Indeed, the definition of 4G continues to be somewhat of a moving target--PCMag.com recently reported that AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) now defines HSPA 14.4 Mbps, with enhanced backhaul, as a 4G offering. Previously the carrier had indicated that its HSPA+ 21 Mbps network and enhanced backhaul offered 4G speeds.

Obviously, a number of factors play into the actual speeds that wireless users will get: distance from the cell site, backhaul, radio access network technology, spectrum usage and even the receiving handset can all affect the speeds obtained by the user. For example, MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) last year launched switched on the nation's first major LTE network deployment; however, the narrow slivers of spectrum that the carrier allocated to its LTE buildout mean that users don't get speeds anywhere near the 5-12 Mbps that Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) promises its LTE users.

Nonetheless, the race to 4G is a major event in the U.S. wireless industry, and much of the real work involves the rollout of faster radio access networks. Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR), Verizon Wireless and others have doled out billions of dollars to install new, faster base stations and antennas in order to speed up users' data transmissions.

Thus, it's worth looking at where each 4G carrier currently stands in its 4G network buildout. Fierce teamed with wireless coverage firm American Roamer to have a look at exactly where 4G is currently available, and how each carrier stacks up in terms of 4G network rollouts.

Naturally, there are a number of caveats to these maps, including:

  • 4G has become a marketing term, and not all 4G networks are created equal. However, the below maps comprise the networks that are advertised as providing 4G speeds--regardless of the actual speeds of those networks.
  • These maps do not indicate the associated backhaul. So in the case of AT&T, these maps only show the locations where the carrier has deployed the HSPA+ radio access portion of its buildout and not the locations where it has upgraded its backhaul capability.
  • These maps are very, very recent. However, American Roamer said it would not provide specific timestamps on the maps because doing so could divulge the company's internal processes.

So, let's get started:

WiMAX, LTE and HSPA+: How it compares

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This American Roamer map shows how WiMAX, LTE and HSPA+ stack up against each other. This map does not break out coverage by carrier; instead, it highlights the coverage of WiMAX (Clearwire) vs. LTE (Verizon and MetroPCS) vs. HSPA+ (AT&T and T-Mobile USA). For a look at each carrier's coverage, read on:

Verizon Wireless' LTE network

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Verizon Wireless launched its LTE network in December, and currently covers around 110 million people with the network. The carrier advertises download speeds of 5-12 Mbps. The carrier activated 500,000 LTE subscribers in its first quarter.

Clearwire's WiMAX network

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Clearwire currently covers around 120 million people with its WiMAX network, and advertises speed of 3-6 Mbps with bursts of over 10 Mbps. The carrier counted 6.15 million WiMAX subscribers at the end of its first quarter. Sprint Nextel resells Clearwire's WiMAX service.

AT&T Mobility's HSPA+ network

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AT&T Mobility earlier this year designated its HSPA+ network as a 4G offering, after T-Mobile USA made similar claims about its own HSPA+ network. But which flavor of HSPA+ (either 14.4 Mbps or 21 Mbps) is AT&T deploying? "American Roamer can not make statements as to the speed or 3GPP release of the HSPA+ for AT&T at this time," the company said.

T-Mobile USA's HSPA+ network

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T-Mobile USA last year launched its HSPA+ network as a 4G service. The company earlier this year said it will launch HSPA+ 42 network technology sometime this year--which supports theoretical peak speeds of 42 Mbps--and will cover around 140 million POPs with HSPA+ 42 by year-end. However, those plans may be affected by AT&T's proposed $39 billion purchase of T-Mobile, a deal the companies expect to close next year.

So which flavor of HSPA+ is reflected in T-Mobile's map? "T-Mobile is pretty clear claiming that their HSPA+ is the 21 Mbps variety. American Roamer's HSPA+ coverage for T-Mobile is reflective of their claim of 21 Mbps," American Roamer said.

MetroPCS' LTE network

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MetroPCS last year switched on its LTE network in its first market. The carrier recently completed its LTE buildout in its 14 core markets. Though MetroPCS advertises the network as a 4G offering, the carrier doesn't provide speeds anywhere near those of Verizon's LTE network--largely due to the narrow slivers of spectrum MetroPCS has allocated to its LTE network.

Source: American Roamer.