Verizon: HTC ThunderBolt dropping March 17, unlimited LTE data is $30/month

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) will launch its first LTE smartphone, the HTC ThunderBolt, starting March 17 for $250 with a two-year contract. The carrier also detailed its LTE smartphone data pricing, noting customers will need to sign up for a minimum $40 voice plan but that LTE data will be unlimited for $30 per month.

HTC ThunderBoltThe pricing is notable in that Verizon currently charges $30 per month for unlimited data on its CDMA EV-DO network, which indicates--at least for the time being--the carrier will not charge a premium for smartphone access to its faster LTE network. The move dovetails with the strategies of Verizon's competitors: Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) initially charged smartphone users an extra $10 per month for mobile WiMAX services, but recently removed that premium charge and now bills EV-DO and WiMAX access at the same price. Similarly, T-Mobile USA and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) don't charge extra for their 4G-branded, HSPA+-powered smartphone service plans. AT&T plans to launch LTE services later this year, and has not disclosed pricing for that service.

Verizon's LTE smartphone data pricing had been left deliberately vague up until now, as the carrier was formulating its pricing strategy. The carrier's smartphone pricing stands in stark contrast to the carrier's LTE pricing for laptop modems. Verizon currently supports two LTE modems, and charges $50 per month for 5 GB of LTE data and $80 for 10 GB of data, with a $10 per GB overage charge. Most operators bill differently for smartphone data and laptop data.

Verizon Communications CFO Fran Shammo said recently that the carrier plans to move to a tiered data pricing model this summer, but is still figuring out the details. It's unclear if all of Verizon's LTE data pricing will switch to a tiered model eventually. "We announced that we will eventually move to usage based pricing this year but do not have a specific date yet," said Verizon spokesman Albert Aydin, who did not provide details.

Also unclear is the status of Verizon's support for Skype in the ThunderBolt. "Verizon Wireless and Skype are committed to providing a great mobile video calling experience for customers," Aydin said. "While it won't be available when the first 4G smartphones launch, we continue to work together to deliver Skype mobile with video as soon as we can, but we don't have a specific date to share at this time."

Interestingly, the ThunderBolt will support simultaneous voice and data sessions, a feature not available on Verizon's CDMA network. GSM networks support simultaneous voice and data sessions, and AT&T has heavily advertised the distinction in its battle against Verizon.

The ThunderBolt also offers a mobile hotspot feature, allowing it to share an LTE connection with up to 8 Wi-F-enabled devices. The feature will be included through May 15 for free and afterwards, customers can choose to activate for $20 for 2 GB of data per month. Verizon has said its LTE network delivers average downlink speeds of 5-12 Mbps and uplink speeds of 2-5 Mbps.

Verizon, which launched LTE service in December covering 110 million POPs in around 39 markets, has indicated for weeks that the ThunderBolt, which it unveiled in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, would be its first LTE smartphone.

The ThunderBolt runs Android 2.2 with the latest version of HTC Sense, which includes new personalization options, a consolidated email inbox and unique camera effects and filters. The gadget  features a 1 GHz Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) processor, 4.3-inch display, 8-megapixel camera capable of recording 720p HD video, a 1.3-megapixel camera for video chatting, a kickstand and 8 GB of onboard memory with a 32 GB SD card pre-installed.

In addition to the ThunderBolt, Verizon plans to launch other LTE smartphones in the coming months from LG, Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI) and Samsung. The company has also detailed its LTE network expansion, and said it will add 140 LTE markets in 2011.

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