1 in 3 smartphones sold in Q4 had 4G connectivity

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.

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