By Sunday, all three of the leading national cell phone companies will sell high-speed wireless Internet connections in Kansas City.
On Thursday, industry big boy Verizon Wireless will launch its 4G, or fourth generation, service in the market. AT&T will follow suit on Sunday. Sprint Nextel, the Overland Park-based carrier, has been selling 4G service in Kansas City in June 2010.
Combined, those carriers’ ability to deliver data signals at speeds that at times can rival home Internet land lines might cancel out any competitive advantage, analysts said.
And while the wireless companies have been investing heavily in deploying 4G networks to cope with the exploding demand for data services, there’s not been stunning evidence that consumers are eager to switch carriers in pursuit of the wireless broadband.
“It’s more about the handsets,” said Rick Franklin, a telecommunications analyst at Edward Jones & Co. “It seems to be a very narrow segment that’s keyed in on the technology.… People are more interested in getting the iPhone.”
Even Apple’s latest iPhone 4S still runs on 3G technology, and it remains far and away the most popular smartphone on the market. Google’s Android operating system exceeds the iPhone, but it shows up in dozens of models made by a wide range of manufacturers. Many Androids operate only on 3G networks, while a smaller number can also user faster 4G connections.
In 2008, Sprint began offering 4G in Baltimore and soon shot out well ahead of its competitors in firing up that WiMax network. But it ran into financing problems for the continued rollout with partner Clearwire Corp. So the expansion of that 4G service stalled at coverage of areas where 120 million Americans live.
Sprint announced last month that it will shift to long term evolution, or LTE, technology for its 4G service. That’s the same technology being used by Verizon and AT&T for their faster data connections. Sprint has said it expects to offer LTE in areas covering 123 million potential customers by the end of 2012.
For now, Verizon has the broadest range of 4G coverage. Its LTE service is available in 179 markets, compared to 71 for Sprint and 15 for AT&T. So far, Verizon sells eight phones that work on the faster network, Sprint sells nine and AT&T sells two. All the carriers also offer a handful of netbooks, USB plug-ins for laptops, and mobile hotspots that tap into the service.
While Verizon has the broadest coverage, AT&T argues that its technology moves data much quicker than the others in the many areas where an LTE signal can’t be found. In fact, reviewers have noted that its network gives the speediest downloads on the latest iPhone even though the gadget is available for all three networks. Sprint, on the other hand, does not cap monthly data usage on its own network the way its competition does and generally offers cheaper plans.
“The big positive with 4G is speed, which means you can download stuff and not go crazy waiting,” said Donna Jaegers, an industry analyst at D.A. Davidson & Co.
So adding LTE to a carrier’s service not only keeps it competitive, she said, but encourages users to tap in more to data services. That, in turn, creates more revenue. Even Sprint’s unlimited data plan costs more for smartphone customers than those with less advanced phones. And the others charge customers depending on their usage.