Willing to pay more for 4G wireless speed?

Ben Patterson

Charging subscribers based on how much wireless data they're using is rapidly becoming the norm. Now there's talk of also charging smartphone users for the speed of their data.

The latest rumblings come straight from the mouth of Verizon Communications CEO Ivan Seidenberg, who told the Wall Street Journal that Verizon Wireless—which is on the cusp of launching its 4G LTE (short for "Long-Term Evolution") data network—is mulling the idea of making speed a factor in its upcoming tiered data plans.

"If you want to pay for less speed, you'll pay for less speed and consume more, or you can pay for high speed and consume less," said Seidenberg. Verizon plans to unleash its first LTE-enabled devices at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, and an LTE smartphone is due the following month, he said.

Both Verizon and AT&T are looking to LTE technology to power their upcoming 4G data networks. Verizon is slated to switch on LTE in close to 40 markets before the year is out.

AT&T says it'll kick-start its own LTE network in mid-2011; Sprint already has its 4G WiMax network up and running in more than 60 U.S. markets. T-Mobile's HSPA+ network—which the carrier used to tout merely as operating at "4G speeds" but is now being (controversially) billed as a true 4G network—is live in 75 metro areas.

For now, Sprint is still charging 4G customers the same $60 a month that it does 3G customers—and indeed, 4G users get a better deal, given that Sprint's 3G broadband plan is capped at 5GB a month while the 4G plan is (for now) unlimited.

Users of Sprint's two 4G phones—the HTC Evo 4G and the Samsung Epic 4G—are also subject to the same "Everything Data" bundles (starting at $69 a month) as are those with 3G phones. That said, Sprint also charges a $10 "premium data" fee for Evo 4G and Epic 4G users—although the carrier swears up and down that the extra charge is based on the hardware of those two handsets, not because they're using Sprint's 4G network. Right.

T-Mobile is sticking with the same data plans on its "4G" HSPA+ network that users of 3G data are paying: $40 a month for 5GB of data for mobile broadband cards, or $30 a month for 5GB of smartphone data, after which your download speeds will be "throttled" to sub-3G speed.

All four of the big U.S. carriers are promising significant speed boosts from their respective 4G networks—as fast as 20Mbps in ideal cases, although most will probably see speeds ranging from 5 to 10Mbps or so. Also, it'll take months or even years before most of the country is blanketed in 4G coverage, meaning that early adopters of the first 4G broadband cards, smartphones and tablets will have to put up with spotty 4G signals.

How much extra might Verizon charge for speedy 4G data? Verizon's Seidenberg didn't offer any hints in the Journal article, saying vaguely that "we need to get into it, figure out what the customer thinks is fair, and go from there."

For now, Verizon charges $30 a month for unlimited 3G smartphone data, or $15 a month for 150MB data. Verizon also began testing a $69-a-month plan that bundles unlimited 3G data and text messages with 450 minutes and data, similar to Sprint's Everything Data bundles.

Would you be willing to pay more for 4G data? And if so, how much more would you cough up per month? Or, how about this: Would you stick with 3G if it meant saving a little cash?

— Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.

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