Verizon Winning 4G Race

Verizon Wireless's Long Term Evolution 4G network now covers 186 million Americans. How do its rivals stack up?
The speed at which Verizon Wireless is deploying its Long Term Evolution 4G network across the U.S. is nothing short of amazing. The 4G network kicked off in 38 NFL markets in December, 2010. At the time, Verizon's 4G footprint went from zero to 110 million Americans covered. That was quite a good start. Since then, Verizon has been aggressively rolling out new markets.

It recently upped its total coverage to 186 million POPs (points of presence). Verizon's original goal was to reach 185 million POPs by the end of December 2011. Verizon reached that goal two months ahead of schedule, and it is not slowing down. The company has more markets lined up to launch in November, and said that more announcements are coming in November and December.

Aside from the network, Verizon has done an admirable job of rolling out LTE 4G hardware. There are at least five smartphones, two hotspots, two tablets, and several laptop dongles that can access Verizon's speedy 4G network, giving mobile professionals and consumers alike plenty of choice.

What about Verizon's competitors?

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The closest in terms of raw coverage is T-Mobile USA. T-Mobile has been quick to roll out 21Mbps HSPA+ to as much of its footprint as possible, and has upgraded a significant percentage of its network to 42Mbps HSPA+. T-Mobile says that in the 42Mbps markets it is seeing average download speeds of 10Mbps, with peaks reaching 27Mbps. The 42Mbps network now reaches 170 million Americans across 152 markets (as of July), which T-Mobile notes is ahead of schedule. T-Mobile's 21Mbps HSPA+ network covers 200 million Americans in 190 markets.

In terms of devices, T-Mobile offers a healthy number of 21Mbps-capable HSPA+ smartphones, tablets and dongles. It has also recently announced the HTC Amaze 4G and Samsung Galaxy S II, both of which can hop onto T-Mobile USA's 42Mbps HSPA+ network.

Sprint was deploying a WiMax 4G network around the U.S. with partner Clearwire, but progress has ground to a halt as Clearwire seeks out funding. By the end of 2010, Sprint/Clearwire offered WiMax 4G in 71 markets around the U.S., covering some 110 to 120 million POPs (thanks, @gigastacey). That number hasn't changed much. Sprint sells a handful of powerful WiMax Android smartphones, mobile hotpsots, and laptop dongles.

But Sprint's 4G plans have changed. It is now switching gears and will aggressively roll out LTE 4G as fast as it possibly can. It is targeting the first half of 2012 for it first LTE launches. The company will supports its WiMax network for at least two years, but I don't see the transition from WiMax to LTE going smoothly, given Sprint's track record (think Nextel). Bottom line, Sprint does offer 4G in plenty of major U.S. cities, but it isn't as widespread as what's available from Verizon and T-Mobile USA, and the longevity of its WiMax network is in serious doubt.

AT&T is bringing up the 4G rear guard, depending on your point of view. AT&T offers HSPA+ at 14.4Mbps and 21Mbps across a good percentage of its network, though it doesn't really call out the number of markets or POPs covered with these speeds. AT&T's flavor of HSPA+ is, in my experience, not even remotely as speedy as T-Mobile's. While it manages to deliver respectable performance, it can't match T-Mobile nor Verizon's average and peak downloads (not that speed is everything). AT&T offers a significant number of phones that can use this faster-than-3G-but-not-quite-real-4G network.

Then there's AT&T's fledgling LTE network. It is live in just five markets: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. AT&T hopes to have a total of 15 markets covered with LTE by the end of the year, totaling some 70 million POPs. AT&T has a tablet, mobile hotspot, and laptop dongle that work on its LTE and HSPA+ networks. It isn't launching any LTE smartphones until later this year.

Looking at the numbers, T-Mobile claims to have the highest number of customers covered with 4G at 200 million, though its 42Mbps HSPA+ network covers only 170 million. Verizon's LTE 4G network covers 186 million POPs today, and will cover more by the end of the year. Sprint covers 110 to 120 million POPs with WiMax 4G, but the future of its WiMax network is in doubt. AT&T's LTE network covers perhaps 20 million POPs at the moment, with a total of 70 million to be covered by the end of the year.

Based on those numbers, Verizon's LTE 4G network momentum is undeniable.

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