What if iPad HD isn't LTE?

If iPhone 4S is any measure, perhaps LTE isn't important after all.

I asked the same question right before Apple announced the 4S in early October and honestly expected that 4G LTE would give Android handsets competitive edge. Not the least. According to Gartner, iPhone sales reached 35.46 million during calendar fourth quarter -- all without LTE. iPhone ranked tops in sales for the quarter and the year. The point: Sure, mobile geeks will pine for faster data. But will anyone else? Nah.

Consider Verizon as case study. During fourth calendar quarter, the carrier sold 7.7 million smartphones. Verizon activated 4.3 million iPhones. Divide it up, and Apple's handset accounted for 55.8 percent of Verizon smartphone sales. By comparison, the United States' largest carrier sold 2.3 million 4G LTE devices, which includes mobile hotspots and tablets. At best, LTE devices accounted for 30 percent of smartphone sales. However, since that number includes other devices, iPhone outsold LTE smartphones by about 2 to 1.

Verizon currently offers about two dozen LTE devices, including smartphones, tablets, netbooks and modems/portable hotspots. Yet, last week the company acknowledged that only 5 percent of subscribers had switched to LTE. This from the carrier with the largest LTE network by leaps and bounds -- 196 cities and reaching 200 million Americans.

Sprint and T-Mobile are only just talking about building LTE networks, while AT&T's falls far behind Verizon. The nation's second-largest carrier offers eight LTE devices, four of them smartphones. Service reaches 74 million Americans in 28 metropolitan areas.

That's another reason to wonder about LTE -- the infrastructure isn't yet there. Only one carrier has the reach right now. Something else: LTE adoption is even less advanced in major international markets, which HSPA/HSPA+ is more mature. According to Pyramid Research, there were just 7 million LTE connections in the United States at the end of 2011, representing 47 percent for the entire planet.

Meanwhile, LTE device sales here accounted for 71 percent of the global number. More than 200 LTE devices are available around the world. However, "the majority of products are currently aimed at PCs, with three out of five devices models being discrete modems, either routers or PC add-on devices", Jan ten Sythoff, Pyramid's analyst at large, says.

Apple could easily wait another release cycle -- and, judging by iPhone, most customers won't care.

Why should they, when iPad is available with WiFi-only and cellular-data models. There is no cellular contractual commitment, as there is for Android 3G/4G tablets, so users have less urgency to future-proof, particularly considering that a new iPad likely will come in about a year (based on current release cycle). By comparison, people choosing iPhone 3GS, 4 or 4S over LTE Androids, are generally locked into 2-year data contracts -- and still they chose Apple.

Analyst numbers are scant, but there is no indication from anyone that LTE has done any more for Android tablets than smartphones -- considerably less considering iPad's market lead. Apple generated $616 revenue per iPad during calendar 2011, which suggests at best modest sales of the $629 entry-level 3G model.

Still, Apple could use the third-generation iPad to break ground on LTE, since the battery drain wouldn't be as noticeable on a tablet as a smartphone. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company could pave the way for iPhone 5 LTE -- or whatever it will be called.

Then there is the rumored 2048 x 1536 resolution display, which is primed for HD video content -- something LTE would better enable streaming or downloading where available. Here is San Diego, I've seen downstream LTE speeds of 27Mbps.

Based on the current crop of Apple rumors, the next iPad does pack LTE. But they've been wrong many times before.

Ultimately only one thing matters. Do you care? Apple launched the original iPhone without 3G support at a time when it was becoming standard -- and still the smartphone sold well. Apple sold 55 million iPads cumulatively through the end of 2011, all without LTE. The question: Just how much does LTE matter to you? Would it keep you from buying the third-generation iPad? No-LTE support certainly hasn't stopped millions of people from buying Apple's tablet. Would it stop you? Please answer in comments.

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