Verizon, Sprint lead on delivering mobile data traffic over LTE

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and Sprint (NYSE:S) far outpace AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) when it comes to the percentage of customers with LTE-enabled smartphones who see 91 to 100 percent of their mobile usage going over LTE rather than 3G, according to a new report from Mobidia and Informa Telecoms & Media.

The difference reflects the emphasis Verizon and Sprint, both legacy CDMA operators, have put on migrating their users to LTE in order to better compete against rivals AT&T and T-Mobile, whose robust HSPA+ footprints "can provide a similar or better experience than 4G," the report said.

The research, which was limited to smartphone users running Mobidia's My Data Manager on Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android operating system, revealed that 95 percent of Verizon's LTE smartphone users had 91-100 percent of their cellular use on LTE in December. In contrast, AT&T, the second-largest LTE operator in the U.S. behind Verizon, saw only 56 percent of its customers with LTE smartphones using LTE for 91 to 100 percent of their cellular data usage in December 2013.

Source: Mobidia

"In addition, AT&T has more 4G smartphone users spread across the range of 4G-network usage, including 20 percent who did not use 4G in January 2013, though this figure declined to 5 percent in December," the report said.

The difference is not due to LTE coverage, the report noted, given that AT&T had 95 percent population coverage for LTE at the end of 2013, compared with Verizon's 97 percent. AT&T covers 280 million POPs with LTE and Verizon covers 305 million.

Sprint, which covers 200 million POPs with LTE, also has aggressively shifted its user base to LTE. The operator launched LTE in July 2012, 10 months after AT&T, but already had 47 percent of its LTE smartphone users in the highest tier of 4G usage by January 2013 compared with AT&T's 33 percent.

T-Mobile's LTE usage profile is considerably more balanced across usage tiers due in part to the existence of its HSPA+ network but also because of the operator's relatively late LTE launch, which occurred in March 2013, and its correspondingly low LTE coverage through 2013. T-Mobile now covers 209 million POPs with LTE

The Informa-Mobidia report also highlighted the fact that LTE smartphone users have considerably higher monthly data use than 3G smartphone users. During December 2013, average monthly cellular traffic on LTE-enabled Android smartphones globally was more than twice that on 3G smartphones. LTE devices used 1.9 GB while 3G devices were responsible for 894 MB.

Further, the companies waded into the ongoing debate over the relationship between LTE and Wi-Fi. "In December, Wi-Fi accounted for 78 percent of data traffic on both 3G and 4G Android smartphones globally, with cellular accounting for the remaining 22 percent," the report said.

Informa and Mobidia disputed the notion that LTE's performance will drive users to eschew Wi-Fi, a trend that has been observed in some markets. "4G and Wi-Fi are complementary to a degree, with 4G devices seeing higher monthly use of both 4G and Wi-Fi, rather than one technology cannibalizing the other," the report said.

"Wi-Fi monthly use on 3G devices increased 24 percent between January and December 2013, to 3.2 GB, but jumped 86 percent on 4G devices over the same period, to 7.3 GB, which is more than 5 GB higher than cellular use on 4G devices," the companies added.

They noted that Wi-Fi is increasingly used for automated services, including cloud synchronization and backup of smartphone pictures, along with data-intensive services such as YouTube, Netflix and other video services in the home.

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