2010 Year in Review: LTE becomes a reality with Verizon, MetroPCS launches

The news: After years of anticipation and laborious work by engineers and vendor partners, U.S. wireless carriers finally commerciallyl launched LTE networks this year. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and MetroPCS (NASDAQ:PCS) now offer LTE, adding to the burgeoning 4G services market.

While Verizon's LTE launch was more high profile (and robust), MetroPCS beat the nation's largest carrier to the punch on LTE.

MetroPCS first announced its LTE vendor partners, Samsung and Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC), in September 2009. After rumors picked up over the summer, the flat-rate carrier officially launched its LTE service in Las Vegas in late September, becoming the first U.S. carrier to commercially introduce the network technology. The carrier offers one LTE device, the Samsung Craft, and two plans: a $55 plan that includes unlimited voice, texting and LTE data access; and a $60 plan that adds access to the carrier's new MetroStudio, which offers multimedia content including access to full-track downloads, ringtones and ring-back tones, and provides access to premium video-on-demand content. 

MetroPCS now offers LTE service in nine markets, and plans to expand to more in early 2011. Unlike Verizon, MetroPCS isn't focusing on LTE for speed, but mainly as a way to migrate its voice traffic off its CDMA network. 

Verizon's launch, by contrast, had much more buildup. The company broke ground on its multimillion-dollar LTE Technology Innovation Center in Waltham, Mass., in April, and said it would launch LTE in the fourth quarter.

Verizon announced in October that it would launch LTE in a total of 38 cities and more than 60 airports, covering 110 million POPs. The carrier said it would expand that figure to 200 million POPs by 2012 and more than 285 million by 2013.

The nation's largest carrier launched LTE on Dec. 5 with two USB modems, the LG VL600 and the Pantech UML290, Both devices are backward compatible with Verizon's EVDO network. Verizon charges $50 per month for 5 GB of LTE data and $80 for 10 GB of data on either a two-year contract or a no-contract basis; both options carry a $10 per GB overage charge.

Verizon plans to launch its first LTE smartphone in February 2011, but it has not yet announced smartphone LTE data pricing.

Why it was significant: The launches represent the culmination of years of planning and toil, and also propel the United States into the cutting edge of wireless technology. For Verizon, its launch showed the carrier was willing to break from the CDMA network evolution path, and it also gave the carrier a leg up on rival AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T). MetroPCS' launch, meanwhile, could help it reduce costs as it moves voice traffic to LTE using VoLTE. Both launches put pressure on Clearwire's (NASDAQ:CLWR) mobile WiMAX offerings. The 4G race is heating up and will only get hotter in 2011.