Verizon's big plans for 4G next year

The company--which is about to pass 200 million customers covered by its 4G LTE network this month--says that you'll see one Droid per quarter next year, and that a vast majority of the smartphones will be 4G.

Verizon Wireless Chief Marketing Officer Marni Walden surveys the carrier's lineup of 4G devices. Roger Cheng/CNET

Verizon Wireless is keeping its foot firmly planted on the pedal when it comes to 4G LTE.

Verizon has an aggressive slate of 4G products in the works for next year--including the vast majority of its smartphones. The carrier also plans to make more 4G devices affordable, further driving adoption.

That'll be key to Verizon's effort to further extend its edge over the competition. The carrier was largely racing against itself when it came to 4G LTE this year, but 2012 will be different as rivals work quickly to roll out their own next-generation networks. Verizon, for its part, isn't so concerned.

"We have the lead today and continue to have the lead because it takes a long time to build things up," said Marni Walden, chief market officer of Verizon Wireless, in an interview with CNET. "We believe we can continue to extend the lead."

A speedier 4G service has increasingly become a critical tool for carriers looking to win over consumers in an already saturated market.

"With the crushing data requirements that smartphones represent, the perception of fast, reliable networks is becoming more, not less important," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research.

Verizon still holds an intimidating lead over its competition when it comes to 4G LTE deployment. The carrier told CNET that as of December 15, the 4G LTE network would cover 200 million people, surpassing its previous target of 185 million. It will also have reached 190 markets, with Youngstown, Ohio, being the latest addition.

The speedy rollout--it took two to three years to achieve the same coverage with 3G--has helped put a stamp on 4G even as the term has nearly lost its meaning through overuse. Sprint offers a variation of 4G called WiMax, which is it will wean itself off of as it moves to LTE next year. AT&T and T-Mobile USA both offered up an upgraded version of 3G it considered 4G, but AT&T has more recently been rolling out its 4G network, now available in 15 cities .

But Verizon, thanks to a massive marketing campaign, has largely been able to convey the sense that its 4G LTE network is a step above its rivals. Walden said it recently stepped up its efforts with ads focused on the breadth of products, availability of service, and apps that can take advantage of the higher speeds. Its efforts have been successful enough that mainstream consumers are beginning to wonder whether they need LTE as well.

That's translated into growth. In the last quarter, Verizon added more than 880,000 subscribers willing to sign a service contract, outstripping the its rivals.

"I've been pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed by how customers are adopting the technology on a smartphone," Walden said.

LTE for everybody One of Verizon's goals next year is to accelerate the number of people on the LTE network. That means a wider selection of 4G devices, and many more that are affordable. Walden said that the "vast majority" of the smartphones coming out next year would be 4G-enabled.

The upcoming 4G-enabled Droid Xyboard tablets. Roger Cheng/CNET

Verizon has 16 LTE devices out already. Four more are expected this year: the two Droid Xyboard tablets, which CNET reported on yesterday , the Droid 4, and the Galaxy Nexus. Walden didn't provide release dates or pricing information on the products.

In the rush to get as many LTE products out this year, Verizon ended up with a glut of products coming out in the back half of the year. While a strong selection of phones is never a bad thing, the sheer number of releases can be intimidating for customers. Walden said she hoped to avoid the same issue next year.

"This year was an anomaly," she said. "I would expect more time separation between devices."

Verizon will spread its product rollout more evenly in 2012, with at least one flagship Droid device coming each quarter, Walden said.

iPhone sales still strong One potential 4G device Walden didn't speak about is a possible LTE-enabled iPhone. Of course, Verizon--and every other carrier--is typically mum when it comes to that subject.

But on its current iPhone, Walden said the device continues to sell well, and in most cases is on back order.

"That tells you it's really important in the marketplace," she said.

The iPhone has been particularly good at drawing in customers who are new to smartphones or intimidated by Android. The push to upgrade its existing subscriber base has been a major priority for Verizon, which early in the year boldly claimed it would get half of its contract subscriber base on smartphones. Walden wouldn't comment on whether the carrier would meet that goal.

Similar to the iPhone, Walden said HTC has also been good at creating phones that ease customers into the smartphone world.

HTC has had a tough time recently, with a revenue warning that has many wondering if the handset manufacturer has lost its mojo. The company expressed a commitment to create a more flagship phone, something that was missing this holiday season.

Walden expressed her support for HTC, and said the company will make it a goal to launch more flagship phones with the Taiwanese company.

"We're going to do some things that will stand out for Verizon and HTC," she said.

Windows Phone needs LTE, stat While Android and the iOS are taking off for Verizon, one platform that has stalled at the carrier is Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system. Verizon quietly put out one Windows Phone handset in the market this year, and Walden didn't seem particularly excited to be adding more.

For Verizon, the biggest problem with Windows Phone is the lack of support for LTE. Microsoft has said it would add LTE support, but hasn't been specified as to when.

"We've communicated to Microsoft that LTE is critical to us," she said. "We need to see a timeline that makes sense if we want to continue to represent them."

Given Verizon's LTE focus, it'll be hard to see a handset maker successfully convince Verizon to take a chance on a 3G Windows Phone product.

Verizon continues to work with Microsoft on this issue, Walden said, but didn't have anything new to discuss.

Verizon further bolstered its position today by announcing a deal to buy unused wireless spectrum from three cable providers for $3.6 billion. The acquisition is expected to sustain its long-term 4G plans and beyond.

For now, Walden is content to duke it out with her competitors.

"We're going to let customers decide who has the real 4G LTE network," she said.

 

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