4G Plan Update: Who's Doing What With Mobile Broadband Through 2013

Between the efforts of the four major U.S. cellular carriers and Clearwire, mobile broadband in this country is undergoing a fundamental change. And while the pace of that change isn’t fast enough for some, we’re better off than we were at this time in 2005. Back then, Sprint was first lighting up EVDO in San Francisco, T-Mobile was still betting on Wi-Fi, Verizon’s EVDO rollout was half-done and AT&T (then known as Cingular) was just getting ready to start the 3G train rolling. Clearwire, meanwhile, was still just a baby; it turned two in October of that year.

So for wireless junkies, the past half-decade has indeed been a treat to watch, but with so much change underway, now is a good time to once again take stock of what’s on the horizon. One thing we can all but count on is for the next three years to bring more change than the last five did.

AT&T: The second-largest carrier currently offers HSPA speeds of 3.6 Mbps down nationwide, but began upgrading software at its cellular towers this past January for a 7.2 Mbps rollout this year. After that, AT&T could cheaply re-double speeds with HSPA+ technology as it waits to see if device makers and consumers are ready for LTE. The carrier is currently poised to begin a 4G rollout with LTE in 2011, which should boost speeds to the 5-12 Mbps range. John Stankey, president and CEO of AT&T Operations, recently told GigaOM that he doesn’t expect a large variety of LTE handsets — and the VoIP services to go along with them — to become available until 2014.

Verizon Wireless: The No. 1 carrier that led the EVDO revolution is also leading the LTE charge. Verizon expects to cover 100 million people with LTE before 2010 is out and to have its current 3G footprint blanketed with 4G by the close of 2013, taking download speeds to the 5-12 Mbps from today’s 1.4 Mbps. Look for phones that support LTE on Verizon by this time next year, although such handsets will only use 4G for data, according to Verizon CTO Dick Lynch.

Clearwire: Currently offering WiMAX in some three dozen cities, Clearwire advertises average mobile speeds of 3-6 Mbps. By the end of 2010, it expects to cover 120 million people, including those in most major cities, with 4G access. Details for 2011 and beyond are sketchy, but the company recently left open the slim possibility of transitioning to LTE from WiMAX technology at some point in the future. I’d expect Clearwire to still be using WiMAX for the next several years, however, as it tries to recoup its expenditures from the WiMAX buildout.

Sprint: With its EVDO rollout now complete, Sprint is looking ahead but in a different direction than AT&T and Verizon. Instead of LTE, Sprint has partnered with Clearwire (in which it owns a majority stake) to use 4G WiMAX. Currently covering 43 million potential customers, Sprint aims to boost that number to 120 million before the end of 2010. Sprint’s future is closely tied to that of Clearwire, so it should still be offering WiMAX through 2013, although it’s also likely the carrier begins to move some voice services to the 4G data network by then.

T-Mobile: The smallest major carrier was also the last to roll out 3G, but like the race between the tortoise and the hare, T-Mobile already offers some of the fastest 3.5G mobile broadband in the country. T-Mobile started a 3G rollout in September 2008, but is using 2010 to upgrade to HSPA+ capable of around 10 Mbps download speeds. More than 75 million people have access to this network and all of T-Mobile’s coverage area — around 185 million — will see it by end of year. Future plans don’t include WiMAX or LTE, since with the right infrastructure and software upgrades, HSPA+ can be expanded up to 84 Mbps with real-world speeds of roughly half that.

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