Get Ready, Here Come the LTE Phones

HTC, a Taiwanese handset manufacturer, plans next year to bring smartphones that can use speedy LTE networks in the U.S. Peter Chou, HTC’s CEO, confirmed the strategy in a in a video interview with Mobile World Live, where he said his company would introduce LTE handsets to the U.S. market in 2011. HTC already makes popular U.S. handsets, such as the Evo and Incredible; thanks to the booming smartphone market, the company has witnessed doubled-digit growth in revenues.

Although there are 132 carriers in 56 countries building LTE mobile broadband networks, focus on the U.S. market makes sense for companies such as HTC that design and build smartphones. The U.S. smartphone adoption rate is relatively high compared to most other countries and half of the population is expected to own a smartphone by this time next year. Although the country is still largely served by 3G networks, roughly one-third of the population woke up to Verizon’s (s vz) new LTE network earlier this month.

Verizon launched LTE in 38 markets and 60 airports on Dec. 5, covering up to 110 million potential customers. Rival operator AT&T (s t) expects to launch its own LTE service by mid-2011. As of last quarter, Verizon and AT&T combined account for 186 million subscribers, or approximately two-thirds of all cellular subscribers in the U.S. That adds up to a majority of subscribers in the country that will have access to a wireless data network which, in early hands-on testing, simply sizzles with speed.

Chou’s comments coincide with previous statements from Verizon Wireless: The carrier said it expects to sell LTE handsets by the middle of next year, if not sooner. Next month’s Consumer Electronics Show may debut such devices, although it’s likely they won’t be for sale. The first such handsets, whether built by HTC or others, will have to navigate the challenge of handoff between 3G and LTE networks in coverage areas.

Verizon’s current LTE USB dongles, for example, will seamlessly transfer to a 3G network if the LTE signal is lost, but the device stays on 3G  and won’t automatically re-attach to an LTE network if one becomes available. The company is reportedly working on the issue, so it’s difficult to say how future handsets will handle this situation. And don’t expect LTE handsets to support voice calling on the new data networks, at least not initially. Verizon has already indicated that voice calls will still use the operator’s current CDMA network, while data would be transmitted on LTE.

HTC, which expects to triple 2011 smartphone sales to 60 million handsets, could certainly choose any number of countries to bring LTE smartphones to, but the U.S. has the most fertile ground for LTE handsets. It just lit up the largest LTE network in terms of potential subscribers, has another large one on the way and contains a bevy of smartphone consumers that want a faster mobile Internet experience.

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