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4G phones nab one-third of the smartphone market

4G-enabled mobile phones accounted for more than a third of all smartphones sold during last year's fourth quarter, according to NPD.

4G handsets grabbed 35 percent of the smartphone market in the fourth quarter, up from just 6 percent a year earlier, NPD said yesterday.

Among the various 4G flavors, HSPA+ was the most prevalent, representing 22 percent of all smartphone sales. Deployed by AT&T and T-Mobile, HSPA+ got a huge boost in the fourth quarter from the iPhone 4S, which uses the high-speed technology on AT&T's network.

AT&T iPhone owners who updated to iOS 5.1 last week were surprised to see the setting next to the AT&T logo change from 3G to 4G. The change offers no improvement in speed, but is simply AT&T's ongoing strategy of marketing HSPA+ as a 4G technology.

In second place during the fourth quarter of 2011 was LTE, which accounted for 7 percent of all smartphone sales. LTE is still in its early stages among most U.S. carriers.

Verizon Wireless currently leads the way with 196 LTE markets across the country. AT&T's LTE network covers 28 different cities. Sprint is aiming to launch 4G LTE in 10 markets by June. And T-Mobile is trailing the the pack, looking to move ahead with LTE next year.

Still, smartphone consumers associate LTE with 4G, NPD noted. More than a quarter of those who bought LTE phones last year were specifically searching for 4G coverage. That compared with just 9 percent of all smartphone buyers who were looking for 4G coverage.

LTE is clearly the 4G future, according to market researcher NPD.

"HSPA+, which has combined high throughput with practical power efficiency, has been a compelling evolutionary 4G upgrade option for carriers upgrading GSM networks," NPD executive director Ross Rubin said in a statement. "With all major U.S. carriers committing to LTE as their 4G future, it is clearly the cellular network technology that will determine the baseline for the next generation of advanced smartphones."

In third place by a narrow margin was WiMax, which took in 6 percent of smartphone sales last quarter, following a high of 10 percent in the third quarter. Introduced by Sprint via Clearwire in 2009, WiMax gained some initial leverage through its early launch. But with all four U.S. carriers focusing on LTE, WiMax may be destined to lose the battle.

Looking at the three 4G technologies, NPD highlighted the top-selling phones last year as the LTE-enabled HTC Thunderbolt, the WiMax-enabled HTC Evo, and the HSPA+-enabled Apple iPhone 4S.

Of course, the term 4G is used very loosely in the mobile industry.

LTE is certainly considered a 4G technology, but many would argue that WiMax and HSPA+ are something less than 4G since they offer slower speeds than LTE.

However, the International Telecommunications Union, which sets the standards, gave its blessings to WiMax and HSPA+ in late 2010 by deeming them 4G technologies.

Samsung and other mobile phone makers have been heating up the market with 4G LTE smartphones. Apple is expected to jump on the bandwagon later this year. Support for LTE on the new iPad virtually ensures that the high-speed technology will pop up on the next iPhone when it debuts in the summer or early fall.