When is a 4G LTE Market Really Covered, Anyway?

Here's a question I don't see asked too often, but it's worth asking: How much of a town or city needs to be covered with LTE before a carrier can call it a live 4G market?

I ask because there's a rash of releases today from AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp. and Verizon Wireless about expanding LTE coverage in various cities where they have previously launched the 4G technology. We'll see a lot more of this -- especially from the big two -- as they flesh out LTE coverage and capacity in existing markets.

So, is there a standard measure to say when a market is covered enough to be considered live and ready? Certainly, I've never really got a solid answer to that question.

U.S. carriers typically use the FCC's Cellular Market Area (CMA) list as the guideline for the markets launched. There's a wide variance, however, in what areas might be covered in an initial market launch.

For instance, RootMetrics found in May that, while T-Mobile US launched LTE in Las Vegas with over 60 percent coverage, AT&T and Verizon had been going back to the Nevada market and layering in more coverage to hit 99 percent. They didn't, however, launch in Vegas with such blanket coverage.

Sprint, meanwhile, in 2012 was straight up about its strategy of lighting up markets as soon as it had "street-level" coverage in an area and then returning to add more depth.

Depth of capacity and coverage may seem like less of an issue than the raw speeds of 4G right now. That won't always be the case, however, as pure 4G voice-over-IP applications will require coverage and capacity to deliver service up even to the not-so-hot standards of mobile calls over 2G and 3G networks today.

So -- in the rest of 2013 and well beyond -- expect to see plenty more releases touting "expanded coverage" of LTE networks in towns and cities where the technology is already live.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

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