Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) next iPhone is coming. Soon. One of the most important features that is basically a lock at this point is the inclusion of 4G LTE data connectivity speeds. The third-generation iPad sported LTE, and it's also nearly ubiquitous among competing smartphones, so adding LTE to this year's iPhone is downright required. Otherwise, we're talking about another full year before the next model, which is far too long to wait.
As far as the wireless carriers are concerned, Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) and AT&T (NYSE: T ) are much farther along with their respective LTE network rollouts. Big Red's LTE is currently in 371 markets, and Ma Bell's is locked and loaded in 53. Smaller iPhone carrier rival Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) ? Just six. The magnitude of that disadvantage, or the perception thereof, is directly related to how much value customers place in having access to LTE speeds.
For a relatively technologically sophisticated consumer like myself, next-generation coverage is of paramount importance. Fortunately for Sprint, the bulk of subscribers might not fall into the same category.
Piper Jaffray analyst Christopher Larsen was out today with some bullish comments on Sprint, reiterating his "overweight" rating on shares, the equivalent of a "buy." In addition, Larsen is boosting his price target from $5 to $6, meaning he still thinks Sprint has some momentum in it even as it has more than doubled from its low of $2.10 set just six months ago.
The firm conducted a survey of roughly 3,000 online participants regarding their perception of 4G networks, carriers, and the upcoming iPhone. Of the respondents, a whopping 47% believed they didn't need 4G data speeds, 26% don't know the difference between the various 4G standards and consider them all the same, and just 15% think LTE is the best.
That implies that a large chunk of potential iPhone 5 buyers will probably overlook Sprint's LTE disadvantage, and could potentially be more interested in pricing and unlimited data, where Sprint has advantages. Larsen concludes that Sprint's smaller LTE network won't negatively affect the carrier's iPhone sales. Saying the next iPhone won't hurt Sprint is almost like saying it'll help.
Additionally, the survey shows that Verizon is set to gain iPhone market share, with 44% of respondents interested in Big Red, 29% voting for Ma Bell, and 14% siding with Little Yellow.
Larsen concludes by saying Sprint's management is on track with its turnaround, with recent results as evidence of its progress.
The iPhone's importance to carriers shows how much weight Apple pulls in the smartphone market, which is why its run isn't over. Sign up for The Motley Fool's brand new Apple research service, and you'll get a detailed report on everything current or prospective shareholders should know, as well as key updates as news develops.