US operators are looking at freeing up capacity on older networks and spectrum refarming as they ramp up migration to 4G-LTE.

According to the latest Wireless Intelligence data, LTE connections in the US totalled 13.7 million in Q2 2012, maintaining the country’s status as the world’s largest LTE market ahead of South Korea (7.1 million) and Japan (3.7 million).

LTE represented 4 percent of total US connections in Q2 and is forecast to account for 6 percent (20 million) by year-end. When all technologies under the 4G classification are included (adding WiMAX as well as LTE), 4G accounted for 7 percent of the US total in Q2.

US market-leader Verizon Wireless is comfortably the world’s single largest LTE operator, surpassing 10 million LTE connections in Q2 and accounting for almost four in every five US LTE connections. Verizon’s LTE network is currently live in 371 regional markets, covering an estimated 75 percent of the population. It is planning to extend coverage to 400 markets by year-end.

Two-thirds of Verizon’s connections base still relates to its 3G-CDMA network, though numbers are falling as subscriber migration to LTE accelerates. While it has been speculated that the operator could soon start repurposing CDMA bandwidth for LTE use, executives have been quoted as saying that the older networks will remain as they are for “a very, very long time” – possibly in order to support emerging M2M markets.

AT&T’s LTE network is now live in 72 regional markets and accounted for 2 percent of the US number-two’s total connections in Q2. Unlike Verizon, AT&T has positioned LTE as an evolution of its current high-speed 3G networks, going as far as to classify HSPA+ as ‘4G’ in its marketing (allowing it to claim 3,000 more 4G-connected towns and cities than Verizon). AT&T plans to double LTE coverage by year-end 2012 (compared to a year earlier) and will “largely complete” deployment by the end of next year.

With the vast majority (85 percent) of its connections base already on 3G, AT&T is planning to shut down its legacy 2G-GSM networks by 2017, allowing it to refarm spectrum in the 1900 MHz band for next-generation services.

Third-placed Sprint Nextel switched on its first 1900 MHz LTE networks in July, lighting up 15 markets across three US states (Georgia, Texas and Missouri); it plans to complete the nationwide rollout by 2013. The launches form part of the operator’s ‘Network Vision’ initiative aimed at consolidating its network around 3G-CDMA and 4G-LTE by offering multi-mode devices. Under the initiative, Sprint plans to wind down its iDEN push-to-talk network by Q2 2013, allowing it to free up spectrum in the valuable 800 MHz band.

Sprint has been offering a 4G-branded service since 2008 via a wholesale deal with Clearwire’s WiMAX network, but as its strategic focus switched to LTE, Sprint gave up its majority equity stake in Clearwire and is no longer launching new WiMAX devices. It has been suggested that it could reposition WiMAX services for its prepaid brands, Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile.

Deutsche Telekom-owned T-Mobile USA, the country’s fourth national operator, does not plan to launch LTE until next year, and is continuing to invest in HSPA+ using refarmed 1900 MHz 2G-GSM spectrum in the meantime (like AT&T, T-Mobile markets HSPA+ as ‘4G’). The operator’s LTE network is to be deployed at 1700/2100 MHz using the advanced wireless services (AWS) spectrum acquired from AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

The most aggressive LTE player among the tier-two US operators is MetroPCS. It reached 700,000 LTE connections in Q2 2012, on the back of an unlimited US$55 data plan and the introduction of more affordable LTE smartphones. It also claimed a “world first” by introducing VoLTE in August, though the LTE voice service is currently only supported on one device, the LG Connect.

MetroPCS has built-out 1700/1900/2100 MHz LTE to around 90 percent of its total footprint – and expects to reach 97 percent in early Q4 2012. It hopes to eventually move its entire subscriber base to LTE, and plans to start refarming spectrum that it is currently using for CDMA traffic by the middle of next year.

Rival Cricket Communications (Leap Wireless) expects its LTE network to cover 21 million people by year-end, and is aiming to upgrade two thirds of its network footprint over the next two to three years. C Spire Wireless launched LTE in four Mississippi markets this month, and plans to be live in 37 markets by year-end.

Need more analysis?

This market commentary is an abridged version of a Wireless Intelligence Analysis article. The full version includes exclusive analyst comment and data tables. A trial subscription to the full service is available free of charge without obligation. Click here to register.

Wireless Intelligence is the definitive source of mobile operator data, analysis and forecasts, delivering the most accurate and complete set of industry metrics available. Relied on by a customer base of over 700 of the world’s mobile operators, device vendors, equipment manufacturers and leading financial and consultancy firms, the data set is the most scrutinised in the industry. With over 6 million individual data points – updated daily – the service provides coverage of the performance of all 940 operators and 640 MVNOs across 2,200 networks, 55 groups and 225 countries worldwide.