4G Wireless in America: Where We Are, Where We’re Headed

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4G wireless
Since the wireless industry can't yet agree on a single definition for the term "4G," it should be no surprise that the 4G World show in Chicago this week saw top service providers deliver mixed messages about what consumers might be able to expect from the "fourth generation" of cellular services over the next year. But one thing is clear: We're a lot closer to enjoying the faster speeds of the new networks than we were a year ago, and the advance of the technology is picking up speed.

While base-technology choices and network-deployment time frames differ greatly among the country's top providers, the cellular carriers agree to some extent about what consumers will see throughout 2011: more connected devices, faster network speeds to support better video and data-download connections, and a wide range of new pricing plans aimed at all segments of the rapidly expanding mobile-data market.

Even if the carriers can't agree on what 4G really is, they all know that potential customers are already clamoring for more ways to connect, at faster speeds--and to stay competitive, the carriers must respond. "There's a new normal being created," said Matt Carter, president of Sprint's 4G operations, who noted in an interview that Sprint has seen data use "explode" on the company's 4G network. "Today we call that person a ‘heavy user,'" Carter said. "But that amount of network use is becoming the new normal."

4G: Where We Stand Now

The WiMax-based network built by Clearwire (and used by partner and majority owner Sprint) will continue to offer 4G services to the largest number of U.S. markets, with 56 cities already live and three major markets--Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco--slated to come online before the end of the year. At the show, Sprint announced a Dell netbook and laptop with embedded 3G and 4G service options, adding to its list of 4G-enabled devices.

Verizon 4G LTE
Verizon's map of 4G LTE service availability by the end of 2010.
Before the end of 2010, however, the Sprint/Clearwire combo is scheduled to get its first real competition in the 4G arena when Verizon launches its Long Term Evolution network. Although Verizon wasn't at the 4G World show, its announcement earlier this month of the 39 cities and 60-plus airports included in its planned 2010 LTE rollout was a competitive presence in all 4G discussions at the McCormick Center this week.

While AT&T didn't elaborate on its 4G plans at the show (other than to confirm its already announced schedule of limited LTE launches by mid-2011), the company did talk about implementing a new range of pricing models for both its 3G and 4G networks similar to the pay-as-you-go plan that accompanied AT&T's successful launch of the 3G-enabled Apple iPad.

T-Mobile, meanwhile, used the show to continue touting its HSPA+ network as a "4G" service, even though the technology is widely regarded as a souped-up version of a 3G service. And even prepaid-market provider MetroPCS continued to make noise in the 4G space, announcing during the show the addition of Detroit to the list of cities where the company offers its LTE phone.

The following is a quick roundup from the show, a look at what each of the top wireless providers had to say about 4G plans for 2011 and beyond.

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