The LTE era for cellphones has begun: Why you should care

In a case of David toppling two Goliaths, this week MetroPCS, a nationwide flat-rate prepaid cell carrier that weighs 7.6 million subscribers soaking wet, launched the first LTE market in Las Vegas, beating both AT&T and Verizon to the 4G-network punch. Even though there was no ribbon cutting, the LTE era has begun. What does it all mean?

While MetroPCS's move a noteworthy first step, AT&T Wireless (90 million subs) and Verizon (88 million subs), both plan to soon launch their own long-planned LTE networks soon. Samsung has the honor of claiming the first LTE handset, the Craft (SCH-r900), a horizontal QWERTY slider with 3.3-inch AMOLED screen, for $299 after rebate.

But the little carrier is serious: MetroPCS plans to roll out LTE in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, locations in Florida, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Sacramento and San Francisco over the next few months. Service will run $55 to $60 a month. Should you subscribe? Read on.

What the Hell is LTE Anyway?

In case you've heard of LTE but are a little light on the details, the acronym stands for Long Term Evolution. It's a GSM-based technology capable of theoretically download speeds of 5-12 Mbps, on par with most cable modems, but development on LTE upgrades up to 70 Mbps are underway.

Sprint would take issue with this LTE hullabaloo. The third-place carrier has been selling its alternative to LTE, WiMAX 4G service, for almost two years. Sprint's HTC Evo 4G has been a huge hit, and it just launched a second 4G handset, the Samsung Galaxy S Epic as well as WiMAX service in New York City just last week. But Clearwire, Sprint's WiMAX carrier, may not have enough dough to finish its nationwide WiMAX build-out and is testing a possible move to LTE.

Goliath A and Goliath V may not be toppled for long. According to the buzz, Verizon will launch its long-awaited LTE service on November 15, with the first devices available 11 days later. But this initial LTE gear likely will be modems; consumer handsets probably will come early next year. Rumors have been swirling about a Verizon iPhone and the timing to make it LTE-enabled seem right, even though reports indicate the LTE chipset is currently too bulky for Apple's slim iPhone 4 case.

AT&T plans to inaugurate its LTE network sometime in mid-2011, which raises the possibility of Steve Jobs unveiling an LTE iPhone at the Apple's annual upgrade announcement next June. If Verizon's iPhone is LTE, bet on an LTE iPhone 5 for AT&T.

LTE also might mean new carriers. An outfit called LightSquared is deploying a wholesale LTE network, which it'll market through third-party brands (i.e. Joe's LTE, 4G for less!).

Why You Should Care

LTE and WiMAX mean more than just faster wireless data delivery to your cellphone, even though that's nothing to sneeze at. But using LTE to speedily share multi-megapixel photos or HD video, or to load a merenguing mongrel YouTube video faster, would be like using a jet engine to power a kite.

First, an LTE phone likely means a smartphone with a built-in multi-user hotspot, à la the Evo and Epic from Sprint (4G) and Verizon's Droid X and Galaxy S Fascinate (3G) (curiously, MetroPCS' Samsung Craft lacks this essential feature). I've been using the Fascinate hotspot to power my iPad the last couple of weeks, and it's both speedy and convenient (if a bit of a battery hog — figure four hours for hotspotting, tops). It's one of those "how did I live without this" gizmos that road warriors already have discovered.

Which means you're a fool if you buy a Samsung Galaxy S Tab, 3G iPad, or any other 3G tablet PC if you're a Verizon or Sprint customer. Switch to one of the aforementioned hotspot-enabled phones instead, then save a couple of shekels and buy a Wi-Fi tab. While you'll still have to subscribe to a second two-year hotspot plan (at some point, 4G carriers will have to offer a voice/data/hotspot bundle), at least it'll run concurrent with your call plan in a single device, and you'll be able to tether your tablet as well as other devices for nearby family and friends.

Look Ma, No Cable

But LTE portends a much larger communications earthquake. I've been sussing the implications of each of us becoming our own wireless broadband communications hub. On the top of my hit list, it's the missing piece to completely cutting your cable connection.

Already there are plethora alternatives to finding TV programming online and off — iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, SezM, et al. But you still need Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, FiOS, et al, to get your Internet connection, and a router to spread Wi-Fi around your home.

Not with an LTE smartphone you don't — you'll have five-to-eight tether connections at speeds equal to or surpassing what you get from your wired wall connection to any and all connected device in your home, including to your PC and laptops, and connected HDTVs, Blu-ray players, video game consoles or media streamers. And, of course, since you have a 4G cellphone, no more cable-company VoIP, either.

Oh, how I'd love to tell TimeWarner to shove Roadrunner and its frequent peak-time sluggishness. And I'm sure I'm not alone. Just for a second, I wish I were a Sprint subscriber or lived in Las Vegas. Hurry to New York, LTE, hurry!

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