4G Wireless Networks in the US

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4G Wireless Networks in the US

by Michael Gariffo

Docid: 00021520

Publication Date: 1907

Report Type: MARKET


Although the industry has now set its sites squarely on the upcoming 5G boom,
the best the US telecom industry currently has to offer remains 4G technology.
In its relatively long lifespan (at least in networking technology terms), 4G
has gone from an industry buzzword to a rampant new technology to an
invaluable part of the country’s telecom infrastructure. The road to get
here has not been a smooth one, with multiple technologies originally vying for
the top spot as the dominant 4G protocol and multiple carriers and telecom
companies staking their futures on which protocol would be the best. This report
will examine how that competition and uncertainty shaped the telecom landscape
and examine how 4G wireless networks will continue to power
communications across the US for years to come.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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Faulkner Reports
US Telecom Market
Dynamics Tutorial
US Mobile
Broadband Marketplace
Cell Technology Tutorial
FCC’s National Broadband
Plan Tutorial

The major wireless carriers of the US invested billions and billions of
dollars over the past decade to expand and grow their particular 4G networks.
This began when mobile data services, spurred by the proliferation of the
smartphone, started to outstrip the ability for 3G
networks to keep up with customer demand and speed requirements. Most point to the introduction of Apple’s original iPhone as
the moment when the modern smartphone was born, bringing with it the need for
ever-increasing data speeds. Although it would take several generations before
the iPhone itself was gifted with 4G connectivity, the race was already on to
become the 4G protocol that would carry the US telecom market into the
next decade. The main contenders were originally Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology and
Wi-Max. As should be obvious today, LTE proved the winner, with the two largest
carriers in the country, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, choosing it, while Wi-Max
enjoyed a short stint as Sprint’s 4G network of choice before that company also
switched to LTE.

Today, AT&T
and Verizon Wireless continue to lead the market. They are locked in a near tie in terms
of their share of customers and their breadth of coverage.
Sprint and T-Mobile are the only other providers with a significant
share of the market, each having about half the customers of
AT&T or Verizon Wireless. (Market shares include both 4G and
fledgling 5G services.) In terms of the speed and
reliability of their 4G offerings, however, ranking the providers is
more difficult. But ranking the US against the world
easier: the average speed of mobile data service in this country is just the
30th fastest
in the world. Despite the fact that 4G, as a protocol, has largely peaked in
terms of speed, many other countries in the world have managed to exceed the
average actual speed being received by customers in the US on their own national
4G networks. This is due to a combination of factors, including the elimination
of network congestion, better network aggregation protocols, and basic network
infrastructure. While these problems have been holding back the 4G speeds in the
US for many years, they are unlikely to be solved until 5G
technology begins to proliferate in the States.

However, 5G still has a very long, potentially tumultuous row to
hoe before it becomes the dominant wireless standard. This is because new
hardware, infrastructure, and backhaul solutions are required to meet the
speed and capacity requirements that 5G networks promise. In the meantime,
carriers will still attempt to wring every bit of speed and capacity out of 4G
networks that they can with techniques like carrier aggregation, MIMO (multiple
input/multiple output), and other
advancements that push 4G beyond what its inventors thought was even possible.

Market Dynamics

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The 4G wireless standard (LTE in the case of the US) remains the
newest, fastest type of wireless phone
connectivity available to the vast majority of the population today. It is the only current standard capable of
accommodating the vast amounts of users and data currently traversing the US’
wireless data infrastructure for all but the tiny portion of the population
already given access to early 5G deployments. In both the business and consumer
markets, users expect their phones and tablets to effectively function as networked
computers that can transfer data, run important applications, store
files, send messages through a variety of channels, and conduct Web
transactions. The expectation that mobile devices can provide all these
capabilities has arisen as hardware vendors have found ways to make smartphones
and tablets into reliable yet highly sophisticated
portable computers. This progress in the hardware market has
greatly pressured wireless carriers in the US to upgrade
their networks so that customers can take full advantage of their
phones’ features.

Although the process was a long and daunting one, the top four carriers in
the US have essentially reached the market saturation point for their respective
4G networks. This is not to say that all four have achieved a full blanketing of
the US with 4G coverage. Rather, it means that all four have now ceased major LTE expansions, having achieved the level of coverage that they believe to be
financially sound based on factors such as the size of their customer base, the
geographic distribution of their user population, and other considerations. For
the market leaders, AT&T and Verizon, this means the presence of 4G LTE coverage
in nearly every major population center in the US, with high-speed coverage
usually extending well into suburban zones. While T-Mobile is not far removed
from this perch, Sprint does lag behind the top three carriers. However, rather
than building outward, Sprint has undertaken a "network densification" plan that
currently sees the carrier strengthening its network in the areas it has already

With average download
speeds of 21.3
Mbps, the
performance of US network service ranked all the way down at 30th in the world,
according to a report
published in May 2019. While this may seem unimpressive, it is a vast
improvement over placing 62nd in February 2018.1 The
top ten countries as of May 2019 were South Korea (52.4 Mbps),
Norway (48.2 Mbps) , Canada
(42.5 Mbps, Netherlands (42.4 Mbps), Singapore (39.3 Mbps), Australia
(37.4 Mbps), Switzerland
(35.2 Mbps), Denmark (34.6 Mbps), Belgium
(34.2 Mbps), and Japan (33.00 Mbps). With the US lagging behind much of the
world in the area of 4G network speeds, most of the major wireless carriers in
the US are now attempting to do a better job of competing with the rest of the
world in the forthcoming 5G arena. Tactics like the deployment of fleets of
small cell or nano cell sites are being considered, as are new networking
frequencies with longer ranges or better network penetration. The US is about to
have another crack at being a world leader in wireless network speeds, and
US-based network providers are doing their best to make it a home run.


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There are four major
providers of 4G services in the US: AT&T,
Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. Until
recently, there was no
true four-way competition. Instead, there were really a pair of
fights, with AT&T and Verizon battling for the lead, and
and Sprint fighting just to have
meaningful roles, not to achieve
dominance. But now
all of the top four carriers have fairly
coverage in the US. The increased parity of coverage
has forced the carriers to find other ways to distinguish themselves,
including speed, reliability, and innovation.2 That said,
this long-held landscape of major wireless carrier competition in the US could
be about to see the most major shake-up to come to the industry in more than a
decade. This is because T-Mobile is currently in the process of attempting to
acquire Sprint. The combined carrier would be able to directly compete with the
duopoly mentioned above, in terms of both subscriber figures and network
proliferation. However, at the time of writing, the transaction was still
undergoing heavy regulatory scrutiny.
It remains unclear if this attempted merger will fail, like several previous
efforts to join these two carriers, or if it will succeed, changing the US
wireless landscape in a major way.

The market shares for the top players are as follows:

  • Verizon (35.15 percent)
  • AT&T (34.64 percent)
  • T-Mobile (18.09 percent)
  • Sprint (12.1 percent)3

Table 1 describes the wireless services of these

Table 1. Summary of Leading Wireless Service Providers



4G LTE coverage was available to over 314 million people in the US as
of July 2018 (its final LTE-only measurement before incorporating 5G figures) according to the company, only slight more than the
previous two years
(reflecting its network’s maturity) and up
from 280 million in July 20144 and just 174
million people in January 2013.

claims that its 4G LTE signal is the strongest, on average,
in the US. It also asserts that its wireless offerings are the “most reliable.” Its services
operate in the 700, 850, and1900 MHz

Sprint Sprint has now fallen to fourth place in the wireless market after
being overtaken by T-Mobile. As of mid 2017, Sprint’s
network reached a total of nearly 300 million people, significantly fewer than the two
leaders, as well as T-Mobile.7
The slippage in its market standing has come as the company has
struggled with some bottom line financial pressures, as well as its ongoing
attempts to recover from having initially backed Wi-Max as the 4G standard of
In response, Sprint has worked to improve the speed of its LTE service
and to offer new customer promotions, moves it hopes will help it to
retain existing subscribers and attract new ones.

Sprint maintains a 1900 MHz network and
an 800 MHz network, and it sells tri-band modems that are compatible with each of the three spectrums on which
its service operates. 

As mentioned above, Sprint’s fortunes stand to make a huge reversal, should
the T-Mobile transaction prove successful, creating a third wireless carrier in
the US capable of competing directly with Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

T-Mobile T-Mobile once trailed far behind
in 4G coverage, but it has quickly expanded the availability of its
service. Its 4G LTE network was available
to 322 million people as of its latest data release.9
This shows the rapid growth in LTE networking at the carriers when
compared with about 265 million people in the US as of July 2015. The
growth is due both to its 2013 acquisition of MetroPCS as well as
building additional network capacity. An independent analysis
published in July 2019 judged T-Mobile’s 4G service to be
leading all four major wireless carriers in the US in the areas of 4G speed.10

As stated above, T-Mobile’s fate is at a tipping point
for the same reason Sprint’s is.


operates the
largest 4G network in the
US, but competitors have significantly closed the gap. Its 4G service
is available to 322 million people, or about the same amount that it has touted
for several years, having reached the end of its 4G LTE building years. It aims to contrast itself to
competitors with the assertion that it offers “consistently fast
speeds” throughout most of its 4G network.11 The
company’s LTE
Advanced offers 1700/2100 MHz service and integrates
portion of the network with the 700 MHz portion of the
network. Verizon also has a program to
help rural carriers establish 4G service.


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growth of 4G reached a milestone in 2015 when the amount of worldwide
traffic it generated grew larger than the amount of 3G traffic.12
(Even though it was used by fewer people at the time, 4G requires more bandwidth
and thus accounted for more mobile traffic.) 4G has become a necessary part of
the US and global telecom infrastructure, with consumers using mobile devices
for data-intensive applications like video streaming and file transfers on a
daily, if not hourly, basis. The technology also commercially affects more than
just the four carriers that offer it in the US. It presents an opportunity for
developers of hardware, too. As of February 2018, there were 13,700 unique LTE-compatible devices on the
market,13 up from 10,655 in February 2018, 8,623 in July 2017, 6,504 in October 2016, 3,253 in
June 2015, 1,889 in July 2014, 666 in January 2013, 269
in January 2012, and just 63 in February 2011.14 Even
without this
research data, the constant demand for more speed and more capacity at wireless
carriers in the US and around the world makes it clear that the once-new
technology is now only just keeping up with the incredible demands being made of

Unfortunately, the capability of the US telecom
infrastructure to meet the demand is not always entirely clear. Although
carrier advertisements talk about the nationwide scope and peak speeds
of their services, coverage and performance
still vary in many ways. While cities typically have better coverage than
less populated areas, they also suffer from issues with congestion and
overworked networking hardware. This is not even taking into account the fact
that users must have the right device and the right plan to
benefit from the speeds of which carriers boast. Disputes have also
flared about alleged misrepresentations of competitors’
coverage in ads.15
Even disregarding all of this, there has still never been an adequate resolution
to the years-old debate about what 4G is. As
defined by the International Telecommunications Union, the 4G
designation refers to
services that offer at least 100 Mbps
download speeds. But in the US, 4G speeds are typically much slower
than this.16

Some of the fastest 4G services available in
the US today are marketed as
“LTE-Advanced,” which describes standards created by the 3rd Generation
Partnership Project (3GPP). (3GPP Release 10 and later releases qualify
LTE-Advanced.) Services that conform to this specification have the
potential to deliver the 100 Mbps download speeds that the ITU
specifies. But, as with services that today go by the name “4G,” there
is the potential for the term “LTE-Advanced” to be used in ways that
may spawn confusion. “[T]here’s no agreement on how many LTE-Advanced
components a service needs to include to ‘count.’ One? Two? A dozen?”
writes Peter Jarich of Current Analysis.17
“Where do you
draw the line?
On what basis?” 

It is unlikely that this debate will ever be settled, at least not before 4G LTE
goes the way of 3G. This is because the rollout of the next generation of
networking hardware, 5G, is
already underway. It began in earnest in
2015 when the US federal government announced that it would
invest $400 million toward researching the advancement of 5G
through the newly created Advanced Wireless Research Initiative.18 Then,
in July 2016, the FCC decided that it would make available
additional spectrum that is suitable for high-speed 5G services.19
Following this, various carriers, technology makers, and networking hardware
manufacturers have claimed milestones in their personal attempts to develop a
true 5G standard. Unlike 4G’s launch, 5G suffered almost none of the early
protocol wars caused by the Wi-Max vs LTE conflict. All four wireless carriers
in the US are now rolling out 5G networks based on the 5G NR (New Radio)
standard, a loosely controlled series of protocols defining a wide range of
frequencies and signal technologies. While the real world speeds of these
networks have varied dramatically in early testing, nearly all are greatly
exceeding their 4G LTE predecessors.


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The US continues to lag behind many other countries despite carriers
aggressively adding capacity and improving performance. Efforts remains underway
to remedy the situation, such as the FCC’s
National Broadband Plan, which includes the goal that the US will “lead the
world in mobile innovation.”20 It is estimated that the US will hold
just 10 percent of the world’s LTE subscriptions by 2020, with an
expected 3.6 billion LTE subscriptions being active in the world at that point. The
leader in the most recent measurements is China, with 35 percent of the world’s LTE
subscriptions. it is forecast to maintain its lead in 2020 with
a 28 percent share of subscriptions.21 It should be noted that this
does not necessarily take into account the number of subscribers that may have
migrated to 5G services by that time. While the figure will likely still be
rather small by 2020, it could still represent a notable portion of the
population in developed countries like the US and China.

Mobile data traffic, meanwhile, is forecast to continue growing. Worldwide, monthly mobile
data consumption is expected to reach a mind-blowing average of 9.7GB, up from
just 1.4GB in 2015 and 1.0GB in 2014.22
This growth is being spurred by the popularity of mobile apps and by
the decreasing costs of 4G devices and services.23
The quick expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT) is also driving the
growing need for mobile data bandwidth.24
(While 4G is better suited for high-volume data transmissions, a
significant amount of data continues to be sent over 3G
networks.) Another key trend is that users are increasingly
tablets to PCs and laptops. Because tablets use mobile data networks,
this trend is further increasing the need for mobile bandwidth.25

One way that carriers will likely respond to growing bandwidth demands now
that their networks have nearly nationwide reach is to add small
cells, with many carriers developing
plans to deploy many more of them, especially in cities.26 But
this tactic is not a complete answer to the bandwidth needs that
are likely to emerge over the next few years. Improvements to the
core infrastructure of networks will also be needed – current 4G
networks have the potential to be significantly upgraded. “There’s
massive capability in the LTE networks,” says Neville Ray, CTO of
One potential improvement he points to is “carrier aggregation”
in which
various bands of the wireless spectrum are used in conjunction to
deliver high-speed services. This, along with techniques like enhanced inter-cell
interference coordination ( or “eICIC”) and coordinated multipoint (or “CoMP")
should be able to keep the US’ current 4G infrastructure from being too
overwhelmed until it is time for 5G to take over the spotlight. Even then, 4G will
likely have decades of usability left in it, much like its 3G predecessor
continues to power so much of the increasingly important Internet of Things.

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About the Author

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Michael Gariffo is an editor for Faulkner Information Services. He
tracks and writes about enterprise software and the IT services sector, as well
as telecommunications and data networking.

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