updated 01:15 pm EDT, Tue March 13, 2012
NPD credits iPhone 4S for rise in data speeds
New NPD data has credited the iPhone 4S as the primary factor behind the adoption of 4G or pseudo-4Gon smartphones. Where just six percent of devices had support for HSPA+, LTE, or WiMAX at the end of 2010, about 35 percent had it during the newest iPhone's fall launch. Even though it only had two months to sell, Apple's hardware became the most popular HSPA+ phone in the US for all of 2011.
LTE adoption in 2011 was driven by the HTC Thunderbolt, Verizon's very first LTE phone, despite higher-profile launches through much of the year. WiMAX, exclusively Sprint's territory in the US, was led by the HTC Evo 3D and 4G. WiMAX should eventually disappear from US smartphones as Sprint transitions to LTE to stay competitive.
The iPhone's attachment to 4G has been contentious as it reflects an attempt by carriers over the past two years to stretch the definition to include their networks. Sprint was the first to argue that an upgraded network was 4G with its WiMAX release, but T-Mobile followed suit with its technically 3G-based HSPA+ network, creating pressure in turn for AT&T to follow suit for its own HSPA+ access. LTE is the closest to a more official definition of 4G, and networks like LTE-Advanced and WiMAX 2 were technically required to fit the description until the ITU softened guidelines.
Apple until the iOS 5.1 update resisted pressure to call HSPA+ a 4G technology on the iPhone. AT&T successfully persuaded Apple to show 4G when an iPhone and now iPad is connected to HSPA+ only on its network, even when most American users will see speeds no better than regular HSPA.
Regardless of authenticity, NPD researchers found that 4G was a signifcant but still not majority influence. Among those buying an LTE phone, only 26 percent had specifically looked for 4G when buying. Verizon is known to have sold many more iPhones than LTE phones in the fall and, by extension, would imply that few customers in the overall audience consider 4G a selling point.