Verizon hits 500 LTE markets as focus shifts to coverage over speed

The carrier, which is "substantially complete" with its 4G rollout, may be the leader in breadth of coverage, but it's no longer the fastest network. That doesn't matter as much, says Verizon Wireless' network exec.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
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Verizon 4G LTE
Not the fastest anymore. Lynn La/CNET

Verizon Wireless is close to the finish line with its 4G LTE rollout.

The nation's largest wireless carrier by subscribers said on Thursday that its network has reached its 500th market with Parkersburg, W. Va. The company said it has virtually wrapped up its deployment, with a handful of markets left to get a 4G connection by the end of the year.

The milestone further cements Verizon's position as the leader in 4G LTE in the U.S., with by far the largest next-generation network among all carriers. In addition, the completion of the rollout means Verizon can focus on adding other improvements, including moving voice over to the LTE network and moving toward an even faster LTE Advanced technology.

"We expect 4G LTE will see greater growth in months and years ahead," Nikki Palmer, chief network officer of Verizon Wireless, said in a conference call with reporters yesterday.

Verizon's achievement, however, comes as its network takes a backseat to AT&T in a recent round of speed tests. Tests conducted by Root Metrics and PC Magazine found AT&T to have the fastest overall network -- a fact AT&T hasn't been shy about trumpeting.

Verizon's argument has been that it's more about coverage and reliability than speed, and Palmer stuck to the party line in her defense of the company.

"I'm not sitting here trying to figure out how I win a mantle of speed," she said. "My aim is to deliver speeds I need and a comprehensive solution -- which includes fast speeds."

What Verizon has achieved in so little time has been impressive. In roughly two and a half years, the carrier managed to blanket 99 percent of its older 3G network with 4G LTE. The 3G network took twice as long to build out.

Its 500 markets dwarf the 291 markets that AT&T said it hit on Wednesday, with Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile much further behind. Verizon's network covers 298 million people and 95 percent of the U.S. population.

Verizon plans to double the capacity of its network by using radio airwaves -- designated AWS -- the company acquired from the cable companies. LTE devices compatible with AWS have started to pop up and will continue to hit the market, Palmer said.

LTE has been a crucial selling point as consumers gravitate toward faster networks to better enable them to browse the Web, share photos and videos, and play online games on their mobile devices. More powerful smartphones and more sophisticated apps are continuously driving the consumption of bandwidth on the network.

Palmer said she sees LTE traffic -- which already carries 57 percent of the company's total data traffic -- growing six- to seven-fold over the next three years.

In addition to its own network, Verizon has licensed the use of its spectrum to 20 smaller carriers, and Palmer said they collectively offer LTE to 2.8 million people in rural communities across 14 states.

Corrected at 9:57 a.m. PT: The previous story incorrectly said that AWS-compatible devices would be coming out later this year. Some devices are already in the market.