Summary:

Several months into the life of its LTE network, Verizon is gearing up to launch the first the handset for the service, the HTC Thunderbolt,…

Htc Thunderbolt

Several months into the life of its LTE network, Verizon is gearing up to launch the first the handset for the service, the HTC Thunderbolt, this Thursday. For now, it looks like the device will be sold on an unlimited data plan, although that might change as soon as this summer.

Verizon wil be selling the device, which runs on Android 2.2, for $250 and a required two-year plan, with voice packages starting at $39.99 per month and unlimited data packages starting at $29.99 (and you will need to have both).

As the only smartphone on Verizon’s LTE network until more devices launch later in the year — during the CES show in January the carrier showed off 10 LTE devices, including four handsets, so we know there will be at least three more — users won’t be able to compare notes about which handset works best on the LTE network.

In any case, Verizon will have to make sure that it does not face the same fate as AT&T did earlier this month — when it was revealed that its so-called “4G” devices were, in fact, running slower than certain 3G handsets on its network. (AT&T (NYSE: T) claimed not to have turned on the fast functionality yet as it was still testing the network.)

The launch of the Thunderbolt also underscores how operators and handset makers are increasingly trying to do more than attract users on speed alone (or on simple cosmetic features, such as the kickstand that lets the Thunderbolt sit upright on a table): the Thunderbolt will also come pre-loaded with a number of media and entertainment services “optimized” for LTE, such as EA’s Rock Band, Gameloft’s Let’s Golf! 2, Tunewiki and Bitbop (the TV streaming service). As an Android device, it will also, of course, come with the full range of Google (NSDQ: GOOG) mobile products. Mobile hotspot services will also be free until the middle of May. Verizon is not yet giving out pricing for the services after that point.

Unlimited data, but for how long? For now, Verizon is giving unlimited data to Thunderbolt users, as it does for all other smartphones on its network. But this might be a carrot to lure in users, rather than a long-term commitment: the company’s CFO, Fran Shammo, spoke publicly earlier this month about plans to take away unlimited data tariffs from iPhone users.

There is all possibility that this might also apply to LTE users, too, if they prove to be as data-hungry as their Apple-using counterparts, and if that proves to be as much of a strain on Verizon’s LTE network. In the Morgan Stanley investors’ day where Shammo made the comments about iPhone data plans, he mentioned the idea of introducing, for example, the 150MB/$15 tiers that the operator introduced before launching the iPhone. He also noted that Verizon is aiming for 50 percent penetration of smartphones on its network this year, which could make for very crowded data airwaves.

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