Verizon grows by another 720,000 subscribers, continues shift toward LTE

Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) kicked off the U.S. carriers’ earnings season on Wednesday, reporting 720,000 net new subscribers in the normally tepid first quarter. As in recent  quarters, much of its growth was driven by contract smartphones – it activated 7.2 million of the devices, including 4 million iPhones(s aapl) – and it continued the gradual migration of its customer base and traffic to its now not-so-new 4G LTE network.

Overall, Verizon brought in $29.4 billion in revenues for the quarter, and posted a 15 percent year-over-year increase in profits.

Verizon’s LTE network now covers 491 markets and 287 million people, which is roughly 95 percent of its current 3G footprint. CFO Fran Shammo said it plans to match 4G coverage to its 3G coverage by the end of this quarter, and he reiterated Verizon’s plans to start building its second 4G network this year over recently acquired Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) airwaves. Shammo said Verizon would start offering its first LTE-only devices – with no CDMA fallback – next year, which should coincide with the launch of its voice-over-LTE service.

Verizon saw 5.9 million LTE device activations in the first quarter, bringing its total 4G retail connections to 26.3 million, about 28 percent of its total contract subscribers. Shammo said roughly half of Verizon’s 4 million iPhone activations were for the LTE-capable iPhone 5.

As more customers upgrade to LTE devices, more of Verizon’s data load moves over to its high-capacity networks: 54 percent of its data traffic is now on LTE, compared to 50 percent in the fourth quarter.

The mix of Verizon’s mobile subscribers is also getting interesting. It’s been moving a big chunk of its customer base over to its new shared data plans since it implemented the tiers last year. About 30 percent of Verizon’s accounts are on a Share Everything plan, and the carrier is averaging 2.67 devices per account. But Verizon also acquired 43,000 net new prepaid subscribers. That’s not a huge number in the world of prepaid, but Verizon has been focusing a lot more attention on the budget segment lately, particularly as its 3G network starts to empty.

Shammo said that while Verizon isn’t getting overly aggressive in prepaid, it’s by no means ignoring it. “We will look for niches in which we can make an impact,” he said.

On the wireline side, Verizon continued to recalibrate its business toward FiOS. Its fiber service now accounts for 69 percent of all consumer revenue. Verizon added 188,000 FiOS internet subscribers and 169,000 TV subscribers. Meanwhile, Verizon shed another 89,000 DSL subscribers.