Verizon gives RIM a pass on 4G-only smartphone rule

Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) pledged to no longer accept new 3G-only smartphones, putting its considerable market might behind LTE. But it now seems willing to make an exception to that rule for its old partner Research in Motion(s rimm). On Thursday, Verizon will begin selling the BlackBerry Curve 9310, a device with no 4G connectivity.
Verizon’s 4G-only rule admittedly put RIM in a tough spot. It hasn’t yet produced an LTE device despite the fact 4G has been readily available in Android(s goog) phones for well over a year. Verizon could be cutting its long-time partner a break or it might be caving to the reality that it must support the latest BlackBerry devices. RIM’s fortunes may be suffering and the BlackBerry is no iPhone(s aapl), but the messaging-centric device still has a loyal fan base that Verizon doesn’t want to abandon.
Or it could just be Verizon no longer considers BlackBerry a true smartphone. The Curve 9310 isn’t exactly RIM’s most sophisticated product. Verizon is selling it for $50 with contract and rebate. In their marketing materials, Verizon and RIM described the 9310 as an “easy-to-use smartphone ready to help customers make the move from a basic phone to a smartphone.”
When Verizon first voiced its pledge at CES, Verizon Associate Director of Device Marketing Keith Lampron told CNET that there would be an occasional exception to the LTE-only rule, singling out in particular smartphones that use Verizon’s 3G-optimized push-to-talk service. At the same show, Verizon announced a bevy of new LTE smartphones – the sole exception being the BlackBerry Curve 9370. So maybe Verizon planned to give RIM a free pass all along.
But if that was the case, it certainly takes the teeth out of Verizon’s commitment to an LTE-only future. The idea behind Verizon’s pledge/threat was to put its device makers on notice that its mobile data focus was set squarely on its newest network technology. LTE isn’t just faster, it’s a much more efficient data technology, and the sooner it can move its data-centric devices – whether the highest-end tablet or the lowliest entry-level smartphone – to that network, the sooner it could start sunsetting portions of its legacy 3G network.
If Verizon is going to make an exception for RIM, then it’s most definitely going to make one for Apple if per chance the new iPhone released this fall doesn’t contain LTE.