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Leap Wireless, parent company of Cricket Wireless, announced on Wednesday the start of its transition to 4G LTE with their LTE network in Tucson, Arizona. This makes Cricket the fourth LTE carrier in the U.S., behind AT&T, MetroPCS, and Verizon Wireless.

Currently, only Tucson offers the Cricket LTE service, and it’s available only via Huawei Boltz USB modem, which is available from Cricket for $149.99. It’s also backwards compatible with Cricket 3G networks, so you can use it in non-4G Cricket markets. Cricket plans to offer smartphones and tablets with LTE support in the future.

Leap (Cricket) picked up 100 licenses in the AWS auction at an aggregate cost of $984 million.

Unlike Verizon Wireless and AT&T, which can devote up to 20 MHz of spectrum to LTE, Cricket and MetroPCS use less than half that bandwidth and use LTE on the AWS band more to boost the capacity of each cell tower. The carrier’s average 4G speeds are more like a very good 3G network.

Leap will charge customers not based upon how much data they use but on what speed they would prefer to receive, unlike Verizon, AT&T, and flat-rate rival MetroPCS. Leap caps data at 5 GB/month. LTE service plans start at $50 per month for 5GB of data at speeds up to 3 Mbps, and go up to $60 per month, which also gets you 5GB of data, but at speeds up to 6Mbps. Cricket’s 3G network costs between $45/mo to $65/month for 5GB.

Cricket’s AWS coverage compliments that of MetroPCS. MetroPCS is deploying LTE on its AWS holdings (above) while Leap Wireless (Cricket) announced an LTE initiative in November. Merging the complimentary coverage of the two CDMA-based companies might have advantages, especially in regions where the companies duplicate service.

Leap said in October that it will cover a total of 25 million people with LTE by the end of 2012. The carrier said it expects to spend around $250 million on the buildout through the end of next year.

Other Tier 2 carriers are also planning LTE launches, reports Fierce Wireless. U.S. Cellular has indicated it will launch LTE service by year-end and release its first LTE devices in the first quarter while C Spire Wireless also plans to launch LTE in the near future.

US prepaid operator MetroPCS selected Ericsson and Samsung as vendors for its LTE network, which was actually the first LTE network available in the United States.

MetroPCS is the fifth largest facilities-based wireless carrier in the United States, serving over 8.1 million subscribers, while Leap Wireless is the sixth largest, serving approximately 5.8 million customers. T-Mobile USA is the fourth largest in the United States, serving 34 million customers.

Sprint, the third largest, will begin rolling out its 4G LTE network in mid to late 2012. Sprint plans to first launch FDD-LTE on its 1900 MHz spectrum next year as part of its Network Vision network modernization project.

T-Mobile is widely expected to get their LTE spectrum from either Dish Networks or Clearwire/Sprint, since the AT&T/T-Mobile merger has unraveled. Clearwire will offer the TD-LTE flavor of LTE on their 2.6 GHz spectrum, similar to technology China and India are expected to utilize for the bulk of their LTE rollouts.

The Dish Network owns a tempting 40 MHz nationwide on the MSS satellite band near 2.1 GHz, but that frequency band is not an international 4G band. Neither are the frequencies that the United States uses in the AWS band.

The 2.6 GHz band, on the other hand, has international support. If AT&T should buy Dish Network’s MSS spectrum for $6-$7 billion, then T-Mobile might buy 40 MHz of wholesale spectrum from Clearwire/Sprint for some $3 billion. A GSM/LTE iPhone by T-Mobile on 2.6 GHz would likely be compatible with China, India and European iPhones, and might be ready to go in relative short order.

Wireless Intelligence predicts there will be 38 different spectrum frequency combinations used in LTE deployments by 2015, thanks to ongoing spectrum auctions, license renewals and reallocation initiatives.

It’s hard to imagine that Apple and Google AREN’T offering billions to T-Mobile for a wholesale spectrum buy-in. That leaves CDMA-based Cricket and MetroPCS to merge and eventually join with Verizon or Sprint.

With the strong competition between Microsoft, Apple and Google for mobile services, there may be a split between wholesale partners on Sprint and T-Mobile. T-Mobile, HTC, Clearwire, and Microsoft are based in Bellevue, Washington. Where Microsoft puts their chips could be telling.

Charlie Ergen’s instinct may be to beat AT&T at its own game. That plan didn’t work so well for Craig McCaw. Still, a quick flip for the Dish/Echostar chairman may not be in the interests in his multi-billion dollar empire — or his legacy.

Related Dailywireless article include, Verizon and Cricket Swap Spectrum, Cricket Announces LTE, FCC Releases Critical Report on AT&T Merger , AT&T: Selling Assets for Merger Approval?, Plan B for T-Mobile?, AT&T/T-Mobile Merger: Unlikely? AT&T Looking To Sell Spectrum?, Merger Salvage Plan by AT&T, DOJ Blocking AT&T/T-Mobile Merger, AT&T Merger: More Heat, Dish Network’s 700 MHz Spectrum, Spectrum Drama: Made for TV, AT&T Defends Jobs Claim, AT&T Looking To Sell Spectrum?, Merger Salvage Plan by AT&T, Spectrum Drama Unfolding, FCC Receives Pro & Con Support for ATT Merger, LTE Spectrum: It’s War , Cox Kills Wireless Phone Service , Dish Talks Up Terrestrial LTE, ViaSat-1 Launched, Charlie Ergen’s Spectacular Triple Play, Charlie’s Big Play, EchoStar Closes $2B Hughes Deal, Dish LTE-Advanced Called “Ollo”

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