Droid Charge still unavailable, 12 days after LTE outage fixed

Have some carriers overhyped and underdelivered 4G cellular?

As of Monday, Verizon Wireless was 12 days late with the start of sales for its second LTE smartphone, the Droid Charge from Samsung, which was originally supposed to be available on April 28.

The delay most likely has to do with Verizon's 4G LTE network outage, which started April 26 -- two days before the Charge was due to go on sale -- and lasted more than 24 hours, analysts said. Verizon hasn't commented on the reason for the sales delay or the cause of the LTE outage, although a Samsung spokeswoman said on April 28 that there was nothing wrong with the Charge devices themselves. On May 3, Samsung posted a tweet that said "Droid Charge by Samsung is almost here" and included a link to a promotional video on YouTube.

Also on Monday, a representative of a Verizon store in the Boston suburbs said her store had the Droid Charge in stock but noted that "they are not able to be sold yet." She could not give a reason why the devices could not be sold. The Samsung and Verizon websites still asked customers to register for updates on when the Charge will go on sale.

While Verizon stores are not selling the Droid Charge, there have been recent reports that some Best Buy stores are selling the device, although Best Buy doesn't list it on its website

Some Droid Charge reviewers have been able to use the LTE network to test its speed.

Wirefly, an online smartphone sales site, was taking preorders of the Droid Charge for $249.99 on Monday, but it offered no indication of a shipping date.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates, said Verizon is most likely trying to make sure it will be able handle the increase in LTE network traffic that will occur when Charge owners start using the network alongside owners of Verizon's first LTE phone, the HTC ThunderBolt, which went on sale on March 17.

"The network needs to be ready for more devices, and Verizon can't afford to pull another AT&T and iPhone situation," said Gold, referring to the problems iPhone users encountered on AT&T's network in New York and San Francisco. "They are trying to make sure in any way that that doesn't occur again."

AT&T hasn't been immune to 4G cellular network foibles. In March, AT&T finally said it would turn on its faster HSUPA network, which it calls 4G, in April for two devices that AT&T had launched in February: the Motorola Atrix 4G and HTC Inspire 4G.

Also in March, AT&T said its Samsung Infuse 4G will run on the HSUPA network when it launches. That launch is now set for May 15, and the Infuse will be priced at $199.99 with a two-year contract, AT&T and Samsung announced last week.

Advertised speeds available on AT&T's HSPA+ and Verizon's LTE are roughly similar: about 5Mbps to 12Mbps for downloads, with uploads of 2Mbps to 5Mbps.

Gold and Gartner analyst Phillip Redman both questioned whether very many customers are demanding 4G performance, despite all the hype and television advertising.

"Frankly, I'm not sure how big the demand is for LTE or HSPA+," Gold said. "No one seems to be addressing what LTE means to battery life and the weight of the new devices, aside from whether I can make calls." (The LTE outage didn't affect voice calls, just data service, since LTE only is a data-only network.)

"I'm sure any of the delays can be attributed to using new network technology," Redman said. "What's the rush?"

Redman said AT&T's HSPA service requires fiber-optic cable backhaul connections from each cell tower to a switching center, and he noted that AT&T is in a transitional period when it comes to setting up that network infrastructure.

Regarding Verizon's LTE service and the Droid Charge, Redman said he doesn't have any specific information on the delays, but he noted that they could be attributed to the new network technology.

For its part, Sprint has had its 4G WiMax network in place longer than either Verizon or AT&T have had their 4G networks up and running. All three networks offer roughly the same speeds. Sprint began selling the new Nexus S 4G on Sunday for $199.99.

Sprint has been able to roll out WiMax phones without experiencing major network-related service problems, because it took a gradual approach to expanding the number of cities where WiMax is available. However, the HTC Evo 4G smartphone, which first shipped in May 2010, did suffer supply problems, because of a global shortage of displays.

Customer complaints to carriers about delays in Android smartphone software updates outnumber complaints about 4G network service problems.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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