Get ready, Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint. An ocean of 4G data usage is headed your way, now that Apple has unleashed the iPhone 5 with long-term evolution high-speed data capability.
Long anticipated, the 4G LTE iPhone -- a data hog's delight -- reaches consumers' hands Sept. 21, less than 10 days from now. Verizon's LTE network has been up since the end of 2010, and ATT launched its network a year ago, announcing last week that it would reach 100 markets by the end of the year.
Better than Wi-Fi?
Sprint Nextel, the third major carrier to get the iPhone, began rolling out its new LTE network in June, and on Monday announced a major expansion of its network to an additional 100 cities in the next few months, with full implementation expected by the end of 2013. (Sprint's unlimited plans could even further entice heavy data use.)
In announcing the new iPhone, an Apple executive noted that LTE data speeds can be faster than home Wi-Fi connectivity, thereby inviting users to discontinue connecting to Wi-Fi if they have an unlimited plan.
So it's safe to say all three carriers, which have relatively few devices now using LTE as compared with 3G (Verizon has the most) will be virtually bombarded with iPhone data surges.
"The carriers, of course, want customers to use LTE as much as possible, given the better user experience and likelihood they will exceed data plan minutes," said Kirk Parsons, a wireless analyst at JD Power and Associates, after the product launch.
"I suspect this will be even more pronounced for iPhone owners as they tend to use data applications and service more often in general, and now having an LTE-capable device will only increase their data usage opportunities."
But can the wireless carriers handle the surge? After all, Verizon has suffered from a series of embarrassing LTE outages, including one in the first few months after launch, when only the HTC Thunderbolt used the network. It has cited "growing pains" as the cause.
Parsons told us the networks will probably weather the storm.
"I think for now they should be OK," he said. "Remember, coverage for LTE is not nearly at 100 percent, so even if you have an LTE device, you are not necessary always going to be in an LTE coverage area -- which would revert back to 3G technology."
Verizon Spokeswoman Brenda Raney told us the company is ready.
"We have the largest 4G network so we are very prepared if a customer wants to use an iPhone 5 on the network," she said. "We have more LTE coverage than all the other carriers combined."
An AT&T spokeswoman did not address the question directly but cited new LTE markets rolling out in coming months.
Not So Fast
Another analyst, Ken Dulaney of Gartner Research, said Apple's claim that LTE can be faster than Wi-Fi is dubious.
"LTE is a shared service that is rated higher but far more people will be using this per cell and the speeds will be far below what you could get with 802.11n," said Dulaney, referring to a standard that can support up to 300 megabits per second.
Most LTE providers promise single or low-double-digit Mbps rates for upload and download.
"While WiFi is also a shared service, far fewer users exist per cell than per base station," said Dulaney. "It's a matter of looking at raw performance versus reality."
The in-contract price for the iPhone 5 is the same as that of its predecessor, beginning at $199 for the 16-gigabyte model. There had been some speculation that component costs would increase the cost of an LTE iPhone.
"Apple has a phenomenal supply chain and makes huge profits on each phone," Dulaney said. "So it's not surprising the price stayed the same."