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4G Rollouts Keep Sprint in Lead, for Now

For all the wonders of modern American cell phone networks, you really have to wonder if Verizon (VZ - Get Report), AT&T (T - Get Report), Sprint Nextel (S) and all the rest actually try to make their products and services more confusing rather than less.

Take the new generation of ultrafast 4G wireless networks. Major U.S. carriers are either offering the service or planning rollouts over the next several months. But figuring out which products suit small businesses from this new-network mish-mosh is probably the single biggest technology challenge on the market.

Verizon has vowed to offer the flat-out fastest and best wireless experience on the market. But Sprint's 4G network is in the lead for now.

To keep you sane during this 4G shift -- and yes, 4G is worth the hassle; remember it offers you the possibility of being connected to your business anywhere at any time -- here is the skinny on three leading 4G offerings aimed at business use.

Stay tuned, much more 4G business news will be covered here in coming weeks.

Sprint Nextel 4G
Let's keep this simple: Sprint is the leader in 4G for small firms -- at least as of now. Service is available in 70 markets and counting, and the company sells several excellent 4G units, including the way-business-friendly HTC EVO. Overall, Sprint does offer value and a real track record in 4G for small shops. I have been testing its devices and the system for nearly a year in New York, Las Vegas and throughout the Midwest, and overall I have found the service excellent. And Sprint is not afraid to compete on price: It offers a $125 service credit if you transfer a smartphone or mobile broadband device from another carrier. Assuming your voice service works on its network, Sprint is an excellent small-biz 4G deal.

Verizon Wireless LTE ($80 for 10 GB of data, $20 for 5,000 messages)
Verizon rolled out its 4G so-called LTE networks a month or so ago: Two $100 modems from LG and Pantech are available. And big ol' VZ is looking to be the power player for 4G. Its LTE network is up in 38 markets and 60 major airports, with national coverage on track for sometime in 2013. Its impressive HTC ThunderBolt smartphone, due this year, performed well in a limited demo I had with the unit.

Verizon makes no bones about the fact it will offer the flat-out fastest and best wireless experience on the market. And at least in my early demos, there might be some truth there.

But there is a significant downside with Verizon: cost. Business users will probably not be able to manage with the entry-level 5GB of monthly access and fewer than 5,000 messages per month. So we here on planet small biz should expect to pay more than $100 per month, factoring in insurance, extras, taxes and fees. In other words, Verizon will be fast -- but not cheap.

AT&T Mobile Broadband (deploys before April)
AT&T says it will enter the 4G fray early this year. And the company is on track to play the same sort of device-centric role a la the iPhone rollout, teaming up with Motorola (MOT) to create what is probably the most interesting business device in the past 18 months: the Atrix 4G phone and docking peripheral. This yet-unpriced item looks to blur the line between mobile phone and laptop. It's a fast, easy-to-use smartphone that docks with a second slim, low-power laptop. The result, at least in my limited, early demos, is an impressive business tool that mixes keyboard functionality and slick smartphone-based apps. For business users, at least, the Atrix has the potential to spawn a family of mobile tools with keyboards. If you lust after the truly new, pay attention to AT&T's take on 4G.

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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