A new breed of 4G phones emerges

Samsung's Galaxy Note for AT&T is one of about a dozen new 4G LTE smartphones announced at CES.

Story highlights

  • A new data network, called 4G LTE, took hold at CES
  • The technology will exceed old 4G networks
  • Old 4G phones from AT&T and Sprint are not compatible with it
The International Consumer Electronics Show, the giant gadget convention that wrapped up on Friday, has brought some frustrating news for AT&T or Sprint customers who bought a cutting-edge 4G smartphone last year.
That phone will soon be outdated.
AT&T Mobility and Sprint Nextel unveiled some of the first smartphones that will tap into their new, even faster fourth-generation networks.
But wait, Sprint has been talking about its 4G network since launching one in 2008 followed by its premier phone, HTC's Evo 4G, in 2010. And AT&T began adding "4G" to the names of many of its smartphones early last year.
Now, two of the largest U.S. cellular carriers are ramping up yet another 4G system. They will have LTE, or Long-term Evolution, to compete with the one Verizon Wireless launched more than a year ago.
T-Mobile USA says it has 4G, which is similar to AT&T's old 4G, but the carrier has not talked about plans for 4G LTE deployment. (Get all that?)
Since AT&T and Sprint have already exhausted their usage of 4G in marketing, it's unclear how they will explain to customers the major investments they've made to have the latest network technology.
"I don't think the majority of our customers understand the monikers," AT&T executive Glenn Lurie said in an interview here at CES.
Sprint product chief Fared Adib declined to comment on the company's marketing plans. Lurie, who serves as AT&T's liaison to Apple, declined to comment on why Apple refused to adopt the 4G moniker in the iPhone 4S, which uses last year's HSPA+ technology that AT&T also describes as 4G.
"Forget the G's for a second," Lurie said. "What it's called doesn't matter."
Verizon has emphasized the speed enhancements offered by its version of 4G, and makes an effort to refer to the network as 4G LTE, rather than just 4G, to differentiate from competitors, David Small, the technical chief for Verizon Wireless, has told CNN. Verizon is on track to have its 4G network match the coverage of its 3G network by next year, a spokeswoman said Friday.
At CES last year, Verizon hosted two large news conferences and operated a huge booth to promote the launch of its 4G network. This year, Verizon has kept a low profile.
AT&T announced eight new LTE products at CES, including smartphones and tablets. The world's first LTE Windows phone, the Lumia 900, will arrive in March, Nokia wrote in a message to partners on Friday.
"We use this as a way to kick off the year," Lurie said. "CES is becoming more wireless-centric than ever before."
AT&T's loss in its bid to acquire T-Mobile has not affected operations, according to Lurie. The first 4G LTE phones for AT&T hit stores in November, before the breakup with T-Mobile was announced.
At many of the large CES exhibits, 4G was pervasive. For example, a station at the entrance to LG's booth displaying a row of phones was called True LTE Expert.
Sprint announced three new devices at CES: a portable wireless hotspot, an LG phone made from recycled materials, and the Galaxy Nexus from Samsung and Google.
Sprint's new 4G LTE network is expected to match its older, slower 4G network by the end of this year, Steve Elfman, the carrier's network operations president, said in an interview. The company will stop selling devices that support its old 4G around that same time, and it will turn off access to that network in 2015.
"The ecosystem is going to be larger in LTE," Elfman said.
Not only will it be larger, but this 4G is likely to remain king for some time.