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Summary:

Aided by the launch of the iPhone 4S, the number of U.S. smartphones embedded with mobile broadband connectivity jumped in 2011, increasing from 6 percent of at the end of 2010 to 35 percent by the close of the year, according to the NPD Group.

iPhone 4S

Aided by the launch of the iPhone 4S, the number of U.S. smartphones embedded with mobile broadband connectivity jumped in 2011, increasing from 6 percent at the end of 2010 to 35 percent in the last quarter, according to new data from the NPD Group. Smartphone penetration reached 44 percent in the U.S. last year, NPD found, meaning smartphones are becoming not only more popular but also a lot faster.

NPD uses the U.S. operators’ definition of 4G, which means LTE, WiMAX and, in the case of both T-Mobile and AT&T, includes any device capable of connecting to HSPA+ networks at peak rates of 14.4 Mbps (many of T-Mobile’s devices can far exceed those theoretical speeds, though AT&T’s cannot). That means NPD is classifying the iPhone 4S as a 4G device, even though Apple is not. The launch of the iPhone 4S over AT&T’s network in the fall thus precipitated a huge surge in 4G activations, which will only continue as the 4S sales ramp up and future iterations of the iPhone include HSPA+ and LTE.

“HSPA+, which has combined high throughput with practical power efficiency, has been a compelling evolutionary 4G upgrade option for carriers upgrading GSM networks,” said Ross Rubin, the executive director of Connected Intelligence for the NPD Group, in a statement. “With all major U.S. carriers committing to LTE as their 4G future, it is clearly the cellular network technology that will determine the baseline for the next generation of advanced smartphones.”

Given those definitions it should be no surprise that the balance of 4G smartphones is skewed toward AT&T and T-Mobile. According to NPD, 22 percent of all smartphone sales in the fourth quarter were for HSPA+ devices, led by the iPhone 4S. Sprint was the sole provider in the WiMAX category, which accounted for 6 percent of sales and was dominated by the HTC Evo 4G. LTE device sales rose from zero in 2010 to 7 percent last quarter, the results of a Verizon Wireless’ big 4G push in 2011. The leading LTE device was the HTC Thunderbolt, NPD said.

NPD also noted that some consumers are starting to cut through the 4G marketing clutter to form their own opinions on what constitutes 4G. In its surveys NPD found that 26 percent of consumers who bought LTE phones were specifically seeking a 4G device. But most consumers didn’t care one way or another. Only 9 percent of overall smartphone buyers registered 4G as a purchase consideration.

  1. HSPA+ is only 4G is a Chevy Volt is an SUV. Realistically, HSPA+ is 3.5G and it’s only being touted as 4G because AT&T and T-Mobile want to be in the “us too” club by saying they have 4G. Truth be told, only Verizon and Sprint offer 4G networks with AT&T starting their network now. The iPhone 4S is not, never has been, and never will be, a 4G device. Consumers buying these phones by being told this by AT&T sales people are being ripped off.

    1. Hi Watchmanz,

      I tend to agree. 4G has just become a meaningless marketing term. But many people also make the argument that LTE in its current form isn’t 4G either. I do think there is value in these numbers though if you discard the G terminology. 14.4 Mbps is by no means slow, and NPD’s data show that we’re rapidly getting to a point where our smartphones have mobile broadband connectivity.

  2. As for HSPA+ or LTE, its correct, based on 3GPP, none of those are 4G, so… this article is really misleading. Specially because USA is the only market where the operators have been allowed to market HSPA+ as 4G. In other countries, operators that market HSPA+ as 4G have been sued due to false advertisement

    1. Hi Wei,

      I agree with you that the definitions used are all convoluted by marketing dross, but how is the post misleading? I point out very clearly in the second graph the definitions NPD uses, which are the same definitions that the U.S. operator community uses. I understand the frustration of people coming to site from outside of the U.S. since Asia and Europe doesn’t apply 4G to HSPA+, but U.S. operators do, and consequently most people here now associate HSPA+ with 4G.

      As for LTE not being 4G, you’re right. In the standards it doesn’t meant the definition, but neither will any network that any global operator can build in the foreseeable future. If you stick with that definition than the technical definitions of 4G are just as useless as the marketing ones.

  3. why? 4g only helps a small number of people. 3g is fast enough for most things you do on a phone. I agree 4g is better but do you need it on a phone or is it something to sell phones?

    1. Hi Jeff,

      I agree that a 10 Mbps connection to a smartphone is a bit ridiculous, but I believe there is still a pretty big gap between older narrowband 3G connections and faster HSPA connections, regardless of what you want to call them. My old iPhone 3G supported a 3.6 Mbps connection, which means by connection speeds (when the AT&T network wasn’t congested) was around 200 to 500 kbps. EV-DO has similar average bandwidth. That was fine for email, maps and a lot of other low-bandwidth services, but even Web pages tended to load slowly. I have an HTC MyTouch now with a 14.4 Mbps chip and I believe the difference is noticeable. Much better quality audio and video streaming. The extra megabit or two makes a difference.

  4. Thats so weird since there arent any 4g networks.

    1. Kevin Fitchard Tim Tuesday, March 13, 2012

      Ha! Also a valid point, Tim. But I should add that if we use the ITU’s original definitions there will very likely never be 4G networks.

      1. Well, “never” is a strong word.
        But yes, it’ll be probably a couple years or more likely decades ’till we reach those speeds.

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