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For example, on Nov. 12, Verizon Wireless announced it was expanding its LTE network in the Lake of the Ozarks area, a popular vacation spot in central Missouri. One of the lakeside communities around the lake is Osage Beach, with a 2010 Census population of 4,351 people. LTE service may be a godsend to those who live in, or visit, Osage Beach; the news may have been greeted by dancing in the streets. But the vast majority of Americans, and possibly even of Missourians, will never see the town or use Verizon's network there.
For any given wireless subscriber, the question is never "Does Carrier X have 4G coverage in hundreds of U.S. locations?" The question is always "Does Carrier X have 4G where I live and work?" For companies with a field sales or service staff, the question is only somewhat different: they may need coverage in more locations, but they are still specific locations -- they rarely need cellular access from every point in all 50 states.
The word "coverage" can refer to geography, to population, to markets, says Philip Solis, a mobile research director for ABI Research. "They often correlate, but there are different considerations," he says.
Mobile carriers deploying 4G networks first create macro cells that blanket wide areas. Initially, the blanket may not even cover the entire area. Sprint was embarrassed by a recent independent test, whose author Dana Dulabone, founder of consulting firm Advanced Frequency Engineering, concluded that the carrier often had spotty LTE coverage. In a Fierce Wireless follow-up story, Dulabone argued Sprint initially was haphazardly switching on "islands of LTE" in locations like Dallas and Atlanta.
In the most mature LTE markets, however, geographic and population coverage for a given carrier can be over 90%, according to Bill Moore, CEO and president of RootMetrics.
But coverage is only one part of the 4G equation. You also have to take into account network performance and data plans.
Read more about wireless & mobile in Network World's Wireless & Mobile section.