**Editor's note: Please click here for our list of July's hottest selling smartphones to see how the iPhone stacked up against the competition.**
An iPhone that supports 4G LTE networks could give Verizon Wireless an advantage over its rival AT&T, wrote financial analysts a few weeks before Apple is expected to debut its sixth-generation smartphone.
Jefferies & Co. analysts cited Verizon's vast LTE network covering 230 million points of presence. Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. wireless provider, claims its high-speed network now covers more than 75 percent of the U.S. population in roughly 370 markets. AT&T says on its website that its LTE network is available in 53 markets, but counting its HSPA+ technology, the company asserts 4G is available to 275 million Americans. Sprint also has been activating LTE in select markets.
To date, LTE or Long Term Evolution, hasn't proven to be an enormous advantage for U.S. wireless carriers, some analysts say, because many popular smartphones including the current iPhone 4S aren't equipped with the technology. But Apple is expected to announce an LTE smartphone on Sept. 12, giving Verizon Wireless ample incentive to tout the coverage and advantages of its LTE network.
AT&T also may face other disadvantages compared with VzW when the new iPhone is released. In a research note Thursday, Jefferies equity analysts Thomas Seitz and two associates pointed out that many AT&T customers who purchased iPhones are coming to the end of their contracts. AT&T also raised its prices with its shared data plans, and AT&T subscribers may find that the carrier's price advantage over Verizon Wireless has shrunk, they wrote.
Wall Street analysts, though, aren't in agreement on the implications of the iPhone launch for AT&T. A Wells Fargo analyst recently said AT&T has several measures in place to keep its customers.
AT&T has carried the iPhone for a longer period of time (since 2007) than any of its competitors, so it's natural its share of Apple's smartphones would fall.
Jefferies analysts estimate Verizon Wireless will increase its share of iPhone sales in the fourth quarter to 40 percent (up from 31 percent in the year-earlier period) while Sprint will raise its share to 16 percent from 13 percent in the same period in 2011. AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless will sell a total of 11.3 million iPhones in the third quarter and 15.7 million Apple phones in the fourth quarter, according to their forecasts.
AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless all carry the iPhone 4S, the Siri-enabled smartphone Apple released in October 2011. T-Mobile USA still doesn't carry Apple's device, and some analysts are betting that won't change when Apple releases its sixth-generation iPhone. But if T-Mobile does ink a deal with Apple, Sprint is the U.S. carrier most likely to suffer, according to Jefferies analysts.
"If T-Mobile were to get the iPhone, we believe Sprint will face competition for iPhone subscribers at the low end of the postpaid market," they wrote.