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Sprint plans to bring 4G LTE to prepaid...eventually

Bringing 4G LTE to prepaid is just one of the ways Sprint plans to set itself apart from the big two carriers, which are already have deployments under way.

Sprint's Galaxy Nexus is a high-end 4G LTE phone. But lower end prepaid models come down the line.

LAS VEGAS--Sprint Nextel could bring 4G LTE to the masses in a real way: through the hot prepaid market.

A prepaid 4G LTE strategy is just one of the ways the company plans to set itself apart from its larger competitors, according to Steve Elfman, president of network operations at Sprint. The company's continued support of unlimited plans, as well as its ongoing green initiative, are two others, he added.

Sprint, which held a long advantage with 4G WiMax, is suddenly playing catch up with a newer version of 4G called LTE. The company is trying to make up ground as quickly as it can. CEO Dan Hesse said last week that the company plans to launch LTE in 10 markets by the end of June. At the Consumer Electronics Show, Sprint unveiled LTE devices, including the Galaxy Nexus (with Google Wallet and Google Voice support), the LG Viper 4G LTE, and a hotspot from Sierra Wireless capable of running on 3G, 4G WiMax, and 4G LTE.

Bringing 4G to the masses has been a goal for all of the carriers, with Verizon Wireless recently offering a few more affordable devices and discounting older ones. AT&T, in announcing its 4G LTE lineup, unveiled two such smartphones for less than $50.

But neither carrier is known as a budget carrier and for good reason. Sprint, however, has its hand in the lower end market in a big way through its Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and Assurance Wireless arms. Elfman said the company has a plan in place on releasing 4G products into prepaid, built upon its original run with the WiMax.

Sprint itself knows how to appeal to budget-conscious customers--last year, it announced the $149.99 HTC Evo Shift at CES, the first budget 4G phone.

For 4G WiMax fans, Elfman said the company will continue to sell WiMax devices through the end of this year and make a decision on whether to discontinue the line. He said Clearwire has committed to supporting WiMax to 2015, which gives Sprint some stability in planning.

Sprint plans to market its WiMax phones as 4G, and while the company hasn't disclosed its marketing plans, the LG Viper already carries the 4G LTE moniker.

Elfman said unlimited will continue to be a major component of its service offering. The company signed a deal with Clearwire that would give it unlimited data for a flat rate, allowing it to deliver unlimited WiMax service.

Lastly, the company will step up its green effort. The LG Viper is the first smartphone to get a platinum certification from UL Environment, and Fared Adib, head of Sprint's devices, said he plans to take all of its products through that process.

Elfman said Samsung and LG actually have green labs built--largely because of Sprint's focus on being environmentally friendly. But that environmental focus has been institutionalized at those vendors because of their work together, he said.

Updated at 3:18 p.m. PT: to clarify that the LG Viper is the first smartphone, and not the first phone, to get platinum certification.