4G Technology: Game Changer in 2012

When the CTIA conference gets going in New Orleans on Tuesday, a couple of topics will be especially hot: Commerce, and LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution.

A Verizon Wireless 4G LTE sign is displayed at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A Verizon Wireless 4G LTE sign is displayed at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show.

On the commerce front, credit card companies are poised to make their pitch in the mobile payments space, an arena where startups like Square and Silicon Valley tech companies like Intuit and eBay's PayPal have been dictating much of the conversation. With all the talk about smartphones becoming our digital wallets, financial players need to move beyond plastic; that's why MasterCard executive Gary Flood and Visa executive John Partridge are both signed on for keynote sessions.

But the driving force behind many of the relationships and rivalries that will play out in New Orleans? LTE. That's the shorthand for Long-term Evolution, the 4G wireless standard that is poised to be a game changer in 2012.

We began to get a few decent LTE phones in 2011, mostly from the likes of Samsung and HTC — but 2012 is shaping up to be the year when the carriers and smartphone makers put their best LTE efforts into the arena to triumph or fall.

It's already begun: Apple's new iPad has LTE built in, and even though it was available for only the last two weeks of the March quarter, Verizon said it drove significant tablet traffic and data subscription signups. Data is critically important for carriers now because voice minutes have become a commodity, and 3G speeds and data caps have become passé. To get subscribers to willingly throw more money into their monthly wireless bills, carriers need to deliver speed.

Thus far, Verizon has bragging rights here: its LTE network is the most mature, so it could surge ahead if early adopters of cutting-edge phones like the just-announced Samsung Galaxy S3 and the eagerly awaited iPhone 5 pick a carrier based on nationwide coverage quality.

Expect to hear a lot of hints from AT&T , Sprint and T-Mobile about other ways they think they can win: AT&T on its range of smartphones and 3G network, Sprint and T-mobile on their bargain prices for data.

(Sprint sold 1.5 million iPhones last quarter, nearly half as many as Verizon, which is not too shabby.)

When it comes down to it, though, the most disruptive forces in the wireless industry won't be the ones holding court at CTIA. Apple, Google , Amazon and Facebook tend to make their own announcements on their own terms.

The fascinating thing about this CTIA will be the chance to take stock of how telecom and financial industry giants, increasingly at the mercy of Silicon Valley's smartphone and tablet revolution, aim to outsmart and outlast each other.