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How Verizon Wireless pressured AT&T to deliver 4G LTE to Anchorage, Alaska

Ben Anderson

AT&T announced last week that it had become the first mobile service provider to roll out 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) service -- a high-speed method of transferring data to mobile phones and other devices -- in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. AT&T beat local telecoms GCI and Alaska Communications to the punch with its Anchorage LTE debut, and also sent a signal to Verizon Wireless: Expect stiff competition for data supremacy in the Alaska market when Verizon arrives on the scene sometime next year.

Just two weeks ago, GCI had shared the title -- with AT&T -- for fastest mobile network in Alaska. Both telecoms used a system known as a High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) plus network. HSPA plus and LTE are both frequently referred to as “4G” networks when it comes to selling phones and cell phone plans, though LTE has the real edge when it comes to download speed, and is usually considered the truer “4G” network.

ACS had announced plans last year to introduce LTE service of its own, though those plans remain mostly in the dark, even today. Heather Cavanaugh, spokeswoman for ACS, said in September 2011 that details on the LTE network would be available in the coming weeks or months. But a year later, the details remained hazy.

Last week, Cavanaugh said ACS was aware of AT&T’s Anchorage LTE roll out, and that it wasn't going to accelerate plans to introduce their own network in order to be “first” in Alaska. She could only say that there would be further announcements soon.

“We are in the final phase of our 4G LTE network rollout,” Cavanaugh said, adding only that ACS “expects to share more information in the coming weeks.” On Wednesday, the ACS website boasted a large 4G LTE promotion, beckoning consumers sign up and "be the first to know when 4G LTE is here."

Meanwhile, Anchorage becomes one of a relatively small number of markets that AT&T hosts LTE service in. In July, AT&T had fewer than 50 LTE markets -- the company plans to have 100 markets by the end of 2012 -- and there are certainly markets still out there bigger than Anchorage. So why does a relatively small population center like Anchorage get to reap the benefits of speedy data?

Well, thank Verizon Wireless.

Verizon is preparing to unveil its own network in Alaska, and is currently king of LTE, with more than 300 markets around the U.S. served under the LTE coverage. Verizon is also the main competitor for AT&T in the U.S. cellular service market.

The company is planning to roll out wireless service in Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks and the Mat-Su next year, according to Verizon spokesman Scott Charlston. That means AT&T’s decision to speed up service in a market where they don’t already compete with Verizon could give them a competitive edge once the contender arrives.

Currently, Verizon customers in Alaska roam on the ACS network. Rumors early on suggested that Verizon might attempt to purchase ACS to gain a toehold in the state, but Cavanaugh had previously dismissed that as “just a rumor.”

Charlston seemed to support that assertion. “I’m not privy to any of the discussions that may or may not have taken place,” he said, “but there’s no plans to buy existing networks. We wanted to build our own network.”

Verizon is nearing completion on its “nerve center” in midtown Anchorage, where signals from cellular sites will be routed from across the state. Charlston said that construction and leasing of retail sites -- likely to spring up in the four areas Verizon initially plans to roll out service -- are still in the planning phase.

Meanwhile, ACS and GCI are making their own efforts to fend off the looming competition from Verizon. They announced earlier this summer that they would combine their cellular networks, providing greater coverage areas and potentially higher data download speeds, depending on where a customer is in the state.

Verizon has also announced its intention to partner with Copper Valley Telecom and Matanuska Telephone Association to potentially expand LTE service into those companies’ service areas as well.

The final catch to all this high-speed talk is that customers have to have the right device to handle it. The latest iPhone isn’t capable of using LTE service, though the most recent iPad is. The upcoming announcement of the newest iPhone model is certain to support LTE networks, given the boost in speed. The Samsung Galaxy S III is LTE-ready, as are the latest HTC Evo models. There are quite a few out there, so readers will have to do the research before buying.

In the end, the competition means Alaska’s mobile phone users will see increased fighting for their dollars and wireless contracts -- with a boost in speed to boot.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com