Verizon notches 500th LTE market, declares initial rollout done

The carrier plans to keep growing capacity with other spectrum bands and small cells, but will keep 3G through at least 2019

Verizon Wireless has completed the initial rollout of its 4G LTE network, covering 95 percent of the U.S. population, and is now looking to reuse other spectrum for LTE and deploy small cells using the technology.

On Thursday, in Parkersburg, West Virginia, the carrier is announcing its 500th market served by LTE. The LTE network now covers 99 percent of the area served by Verizon's 3G network and reaches 298 million U.S. residents, the company said.

Verizon is the second-largest mobile operator in the U.S., measured by customers, and kicked off the first major national LTE rollout in the world in 2010. All the national U.S. carriers have followed suit, including Sprint Nextel, which had already offered 4G service with WiMax. LTE offers both higher speeds and higher efficiency than 3G, helping carriers meet growing demands for mobile data capacity. Verizon says its network has delivered its promised average speeds of 5Mbps (bits per second) to 12Mbps downstream and 2Mbps to 5Mbps upstream.

The LTE network now carries 57 percent of Verizon Wireless data traffic, said Nicki Palmer, chief network officer at Verizon Wireless, on a conference call on Wednesday. Verizon believes the 3G network reached its peak utilization earlier this year, but it will keep that system up and running at least through 2019, she said.

The initial LTE rollout that Verizon is finishing runs on frequencies in the 700MHz band, which is well suited for long distances. But the company plans to also use other bands for LTE in order to keep up with mobile data growth it forecasts at 700 percent to 800 percent over the next three years.

Through the rest of this year, Verizon plans to turn on LTE service in the AWS (Advanced Wireless Services) band at thousands of its large-scale "macro" cell sites where 700MHz LTE is already running. Most of the handsets Verizon introduces through the rest of this year will be able to use that AWS LTE service, she said. Starting in 2015, the company expects to start reusing spectrum in the PCS (Personal Communications Service) band for LTE, Palmer said.

Starting late this year, Verizon will also deploy LTE-only small cells, primarily in dense urban areas, she said. Small cells allow carriers to deliver more network capacity for nearby users.

Verizon and AT&T regularly trade claims about network performance and coverage, but for consumers in most areas, the difference isn't that significant, said industry analyst Maribel Lopez of Lopez Research.

"At this point, I think they're both good enough," Lopez said. Performance woes caused by networks getting overwhelmed with traffic are largely a thing of the past, she said.

"They've finally nailed the 'How do I roll out the network?' thing," Lopez said.

The U.S. retains its lead in LTE, according to analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. Though most carriers around the world have committed to LTE and it's heavily deployed in some countries, such as South Korea, in most areas it's just getting off the ground, he said. For example, spectrum regulations in some European countries have kept LTE rollouts slow, Entner said. "The U.S. is continuing to be far, far ahead of everybody else," he said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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