WiMax 4G networks beat Long-Term Evolution out of the gate, but LTE is starting to gain a "critical momentum," ABI Research reported May 3. In December, Verizon Wireless turned on its LTE network, and according to the firm, 12 countries currently offer commercial LTE services.
"ABI Research projects that by the end of the year there will be some 16 million subscribers using LTE mobile devices," Jake Saunders, ABI's vice president of forecasting, said in a statement.
In March, the Global Mobile Suppliers Association reported that there were 100 LTE-ready devices-13 percent of which were smartphones and media tablets, though these devices are soon expected to reach higher volumes. And, indeed, they're a "key success factor" in LTE adoption, according to the firm.
"The shift to 4G differs from the shift to 3G because of smartphones' capabilities," ABI Research Director Phil Solis said in the statement. "In the U.S., people are actively looking for 4G as a handset feature, spurred by heavy marketing of 4G smartphones. Sprint's success with WiMax smartphones is an indicator of the scale Verizon Wireless and AT&T can achieve with LTE smartphones this year."
A major part of AT&T's impetus to purchase competitor T-Mobile is the boost it would offer to AT&T's 4G LTE rollout efforts. Currently, it offers HSPA+ technology, which is these days accepted as 4G, though this summer it is expected to begin rolling out LTE-based 4G. Should the highly controversial purchase be approved by federal regulators-a process currently underway and expected to take at least a year-AT&T has said it would be able to offer LTE to 97.3 percent of the United States. Such a deployment, it argued in an April 21 statement, would "help fulfill this Administration's pledge to connect every part of America to the digital age, and it will create new jobs and economic growth in the small towns and rural communities that need them most."
Sprint, the nation's third-largest carrier, would be dwarfed by AT&T and Verizon, should the deal be approved, and has vowed to fight it. During Sprint's most recent earnings call, CEO Dan Hesse argued that the United States is currently a leader in 4G thanks not only to Sprint's early WiMax rollouts but the pressure this put on Verizon and AT&T to more quickly deploy LTE.
"If Sprint had not been a legitimate ... competitive threat," said Hesse, "the U.S. would still be a wireless also-ran."
Sprint has so far introduced 22 4G devices, including the HTC Evo 4G, Evo 4G Slide and Samsung Epic 4G smartphones, as well as USB keys and tablets. T-Mobile currently offers a myTouch 4G smartphone on its HSPA+ network, AT&T began selling the HTC Inspire-its first 4G phone-in February, and the HTC ThunderBolt, Verizon's first true 4G smartphone, went on sale March 17. (According to online retailer Wirefly, its ThunderBolt first-day presales were 400 percent higher than that of any other phone it's sold in eight years.)
With LTE being likewise promoted and adopted in markets such as Germany and Japan, in addition to emerging markets such as Uzbekistan, said ABI, it expects more than 205 million LTE mobile devices to ship in 2014. Of those, 72 percent are expected to be phones.