Will Verizon Wireless be the U.S. 4G market leader before the end of the year? It certainly looks that way if Big Red can keep up the pace from its just-announced first fiscal quarter, which saw Verizon add 500,000 subscribers for its Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G network. According to Verizon that number includes 260,000 activations for its first LTE phone, the HTC Thunderbolt, which was only on sale for two weeks of the 90-day period.
According to Verizon the 500,000 number (which they say is “more than 500,000″) is new for Q1, meaning the running total of subscribers on Verizon’s new network is about 565,000, including the 65,000 subscribers signed up in Q4. That’s pretty rapid growth that will only likely accelerate as more Verizon LTE devices (like the recently announced portable Wi-Fi hotspots) become available. The question for 4G market watchers like ourselves is when might Verizon overtake early market leader Sprint, which likely has a few million 4G subscribers right now? It’s not an easy answer to find, simply because Sprint hasn’t ever broken out its 4G subscriber numbers out of its main totals.
Why hasn’t Sprint been more granular with its 4G data? Some of it probably has to do with the ongoing dispute between Sprint and Clearwire over how much Sprint was supposed to pay Clearwire for each customer on the 4G network. With that issue now resolved and Sprint and Clearwire in much better lockstep, we hope to see more clarity over the 4G subscriber numbers either during Sprint’s call next week or Clearwire’s in early May.
Right now the best guess at how many 4G customers Sprint has is somewhere around 2.4 million — we get this figure by taking the total number of Clearwire wholesale 4G subscribers, 3.3 million, and subtract the 900,000 or so customers who bought a Sprint 4G phone but don’t live in a 4G coverage area. (Clearwire also doesn’t break out its wholesale numbers by service provider, but compared to Sprint’s numbers the other wholesale partners are most likely a rounding error at this point; maybe we’ll hear more about who is selling how much for Clearwire during its next earnings call.)
So will Verizon overtake Sprint? Or will the “tiered pricing” that Verizon is now hinting at discourage a true groundswell of customers, and drive more toward Sprint’s true unlimited 4G data plans? Sounds like the next quarter will tell a lot when it comes to U.S. 4G market leadership. But it’s clear from Verizon’s recent performance that the battle is on.