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High-speed, 4G LTE wireless coverage spread through Erie and Niagara counties in 2012, and the nation’s major wireless providers are planning to significantly expand their networks in the region during the coming year.

This enhanced, fourth-generation coverage promises faster speeds for sending text messages, uploading photos, downloading data files and streaming video.

As Verizon Wireless, AT&T and the other providers invest in Buffalo Niagara, the region is seeing its average network performance improve from the bottom of the barrel to the middle of the pack.

“Everybody got faster,” said Bill Moore, president and CEO of RootMetrics, the company that performs independent testing of wireless networks.

The wireless network in Buffalo Niagara improved in 2012 because Verizon, which introduced LTE coverage to this area in 2011, expanded its system, while AT&T last summer launched its own LTE network to build off an older-generation 4G system already in place here.

The two largest wireless providers plan to expand their LTE networks here in 2013, while T-Mobile – which has its own, older 4G system in Erie and Niagara counties – and Sprint – which offers 3G service here – also may boost their regional networks.

It’s not just consumers who benefit from faster network speeds. Improved 4G LTE coverage helps businesses operate more efficiently and maintain closer contact with employees, vendors and customers.

“Whether you’re a business customer or a consumer, you’re going to have a faster and more robust wireless data experience,” said John O’Malley, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless in upstate New York. “It’s just giving you the ability to have that connectivity anywhere.”

What is 4G?

The 4G designation is a marketing term, Moore said, and different telecommunications companies apply the term to different technologies.

AT&T and T-Mobile assigned the 4G label to their HSPA+ technology, while Sprint uses it to describe its WiMax wireless system.

AT&T has some level of HSPA+ coverage, which it introduced locally in 2011, in each of the eight counties in Western New York.

Verizon was the first in Western New York to introduce 4G LTE – short for long term evolution – technology, which, according to RootMetrics, provides the fastest speeds for downloading and uploading data. Consumers must have an LTE-enabled smartphone or tablet to take advantage of LTE service from their provider.

Verizon launched its LTE service here in October 2011 and now has LTE coverage throughout Erie and Niagara counties as well as in most of Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties and parts of Orleans, Genesee and Wyoming counties.

“We continue to expand our coverage in those areas and fill in coverage,” O’Malley said.

AT&T followed by introducing LTE service here in June 2012, and its LTE service reaches most of the population centers in Erie County.

“That footprint expands every month,” said Robert Holliday, vice president and general manager for AT&T Western New York.

T-Mobile introduced its 4G HSPA+ coverage here in 2010, and the service covers Erie and Niagara counties, according to the company. Sprint still offers 3G service in the Buffalo market, though its 4G WiMax service is deployed in Rochester.

The difference between 3G and LTE is like the difference between dial-up Internet and broadband Internet, Moore said. For example, uploading a picture to Facebook typically takes 25 seconds or less on a 3G network but takes less than one second on a 4G LTE network.

RootMetrics, which independently assesses the market-by-market performance of each company’s network, gave AT&T the highest score in its August 2011 testing here, but Verizon took the top spot in testing conducted in May 2012, after Verizon’s LTE network came online.

In its most recent testing in the Buffalo area, conducted in November, RootMetrics found AT&T is the leader in overall network performance.

Faster downloading

The investment by the major providers in their local networks has paid off with faster overall data downloading speeds for area consumers.

In May 2012, RootMetrics found Buffalo had the slowest download speeds of the 75 largest markets in the country, at an average of 3.8 megabits per second across the four major providers.

This was far slower than markets of similar size, such as Salt Lake City (6.4 Mbps); Rochester (7.2 Mbps); and Birmingham, Ala. (8.7 Mbps).

In tests conducted in the second half of 2012, Buffalo’s average downloading speed has more than doubled, to 7.9 megabits per second, and its position has improved to 47th out of the 77 markets tested.

“You’re certainly not last any more,” Moore said.

The improvements in smartphones, tablets and mobile devices are driving demand for better and faster wireless coverage, and the carriers have invested billions of dollars in their networks to deliver improved service to their subscribers.

As the networks get better, people do more with high-definition video and other large data files to take advantage of them, Moore said.

“It changes consumer behavior, too,” Moore said. “Because you have this faster speed, users of LTE tend to use more data. So you have to be cautious of your data plan.”

The carriers used to emphasize how many minutes of call time they provided their subscribers, but now phone calls take a back seat to data for most users. And tablet computers are outselling PCs, and in the next several years they are expected to outstrip sales of laptops.

The higher-speed 4G LTE coverage is a boon to business, allowing employers to keep better track of their workers, their inventory and their vehicle fleets.

For example, sensors installed on a tractor-trailer and connected wirelessly to the main office through a 4G network can identify the vehicle to company managers, tell where it is, its average speed, the weight of its load and when the vehicle is due for an oil change, AT&T’s Holliday said.

And workers who are on the road a lot can remain tethered to their office and their clients, working off their smartphones, tablets and laptops.

“Particularly with small business, it enables them to compete at a higher level,” Holliday said. “It really means the difference between significant success or just average success.”

Expanding the signal

Looking ahead to the rest of 2013, expect even better network performance as Verizon and AT&T bring LTE further into the less-populated parts of the region outside Erie and Niagara counties.

Verizon expects to complete its national LTE network, filling in any gaps in Western New York, by the middle of this year, O’Malley said.

AT&T is expanding its LTE coverage outside Erie County over the next 12 to 24 months, Holliday said.

Sprint has LTE service in 49 markets and expects to add 150 LTE markets in the coming months, according to company statement issued in December. The first 36 markets named in this news release didn’t include Buffalo, and a Sprint spokeswoman said she could not say when subscribers here will receive LTE service.

“Sprint understands that customers are eager for the speeds and power of 4G LTE so we are making progress to deliver this service to more and more customers every day,” Sprint’s Kathleen Dunleavy said in an email.

T-Mobile reports that its new LTE network should reach 200 million people in this country by the end of this year, but a spokeswoman said she couldn’t say when LTE service will be introduced to the Buffalo market.

email: swatson@buffnews.com