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To use LTE, you need a 4G LTE wireless network. And not everyone will have one.
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Verizon has the largest LTE-only network -- meaning it's in more locations and more people potentially can use it: It claims 370 markets. AT&T is next, claiming 75 markets. Sprint for now is a distant third. All three are rapidly expanding the LTE coverage and capacity.
If you're an AT&T or Sprint (or even a Verizon) customer who is upgrading to an iPhone 5, you may not have LTE service in your area. In that case, your iPhone 5 can use high-performance HSPA+ if available or whatever other 3G connectivity the carrier has for your area.
One possible impact of the LTE iPhone: whether non-LTE subscribers at or near the end of their two-year contracts will switch cellular carriers to get LTE service in their area.
T-Mobile USA will start building its LTE network in 2013. In the meantime, it offers its expanding HSPA+ network (which some consider to be 4G). T-Mobile recently launched the "Unlocked & Unlimited" campaign, persuading users to buy a full-price unlocked AT&T iPhone and switch to T-Mobile's network. But some reports note that the iPhone doesn't support the larger part of T-Mobile's 3G network, so the connection options range from its 2G EDGE service to the HSPA+ service.
A new wide-ranging, real-world test of cellular data performance in the U.S., "The Need for Speed" by RootMetrics, found T-Mobile is delivering very good data performance: The percentage of connections running at over 5Mbps (an indication of "4G" capability) was 46.7% for T-Mobile, compared to 48.1% for AT&T and 77.4% for Verizon. A sign of its much broader LTE footprint, Verizon has a much higher percentage of connections over 15Mbps: 38% vs. 13% for AT&T and 6% for T-Mobile.
RootMetrics is one of several sites that offer tools to evaluate not just coverage but data rates in a given location, from different carriers.
LTE is a big improvement for data, with higher download and upload speeds than 3G. WCDMA could offer 3-5Mbps but LTE can reach 5-12Mbps, according to Vish Nandlall, CTO North America for Ericsson. That's enough to make streaming high-definition video and audio a smooth, painless process, he says.
The RootMetrics data performance survey was conducted in 2012; it involved visiting 75 U.S. markets, and doing 500,000 indoor and driving tests of cellular connections (of any type) using off-the-shelf smartphones.
One chart looked at how consistently each carrier delivered fast and slow download speeds. For example, over-5Mbps connections occurred 77% of the time at Verizon, 48% at AT&T, 47% at T-Mobile and 17% at Sprint. As noted earlier, the higher-speed subset of this class -- over-15Mbps connections -- occurred 38% of the time at Verizon, 13% at AT&T, 6% at T-Mobile and zero at Sprint. Connections ranging from 1.5-5Mbps occurred 11% of the time at Verizon, 17% at Sprint, 30% at T-Mobile and 34% at AT&T.