Alltel joins LTE bandwagon

The largest rural carrier in the U.S. said it, like Verizon, will use LTE to build its 4G network. That compatibility could ultimately lead to better coverage, more handsets offerings, and more open networks.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
2 min read

Alltel, the largest rural cell phone provider in the U.S., plans to use the same technology to build its 4G network that AT&T and Verizon Wireless have chosen, a move that should provide better coverage for next generation wireless users.

But don't expect a major 4G upgrade from Alltel overnight. The company said during its quarterly conference call on Thursday that it would likely take three to five years to deploy the new network.

Still, the fact that yet another wireless operator has committed to using Long Term Evolution or LTE, is a big deal. Since the cell phone operators deployed networks in the U.S., consumers have had to deal with two major cellular technologies: CDMA and GSM. Verizon, Sprint Nextel, and Alltel went the CDMA route. Meanwhile, AT&T and T-Mobile, along with a slew of regional carriers, deployed GSM.

This division in the market has resulted in cell phone manufacturers developing different products for each technology, which has led to delays in some products on certain networks. It has also meant that CDMA subscribers haven't been able to roam as much internationally. And it's resulted in fewer roaming agreements between major carriers domestically, which has led to some holes in coverage, especially in rural areas.

So it's significant that the two major CDMA players in the U.S.--Verizon Wireless and Alltel--plan to use the same technology that most GSM carriers throughout the world plan to use. With most major operators using the same technology, coverage should improve and so should the availability of cool new handsets. It should also make it easier for carriers to make their networks more open, allowing customers to take their phones or wireless-enabled devices from one network to another.

Alltel is the fifth largest carrier in U.S. with only 13 million subscribers, but the company covers some 34 states and has coverage in parts of Mexico and Canada. It also has roaming agreements in many markets throughout the U.S. and Canada.

"It is no surprise that Alltel chose LTE as its 4G technology, since the carrier usually mirrors choices made by Verizon Wireless," said Nadine Manjaro, senior analyst at ABI Research. "Alltel's choice of LTE will help to ensure greater rural coverage for small and mid-sized cities in the United States and Canada since the carrier already has data roaming agreements in place. This will complement other mobile operators' initial LTE build-outs in major urban areas."

Alltel's announcement that it will deploy LTE in some ways further alienates the Sprint-Clearwire WiMax network. Sprint and Clearwire announced last week they were combining forces to create a nationwide WiMax network. Even though these companies claim that their network will be at least two years ahead of any LTE deployments, it's clearer now more than ever that wireless operators are opting for that technology rather than WiMax. And that could mean a more aggressive and cost-effective ecosystem for LTE.