Sprint will launch its first five LTE markets in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, and San Antonio on July 15, an important step for the third-place U.S. wireless carrier.

Initially, Sprint was the first true 4G provider in the U.S. when it launched WiMAX 4G in many markets around the country starting in 2008. But troubles with WiMAX provider Clearwire stalled its launch in imporant markets, and all the while, No. 1 carrier Verizon and No. 2 carrier AT&T were launching their own 4G LTE offerings. Now Sprint is transitioning to LTE from WiMAX and launching its first markets.

“The performance of both the 4G LTE and improved 3G networks are exceeding our expectations, and we are pleased with the progress of the entire Network Vision program,” said Sprint CEO Dan Hesse in a statement.

The launch of Sprint’s first LTE markets is incredibly important not only to keep customers from defecting to AT&T and Verizon but also to supports its newest LTE-capable devices. These include the Samsung Galaxy III, Samsung Galaxy Nexus, HTC EVO 4G LTE, LG Viper 4G LTE, and the Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi Hotspot (which supports LTE, WiMAX, and 3G). Without LTE network availability, any customer with one of four aforementioned phones will be stuck with extremely slow 3G speeds.

Sprint said it expects to have built out its 4G LTE network to “cover 250 million people across the United States” by the end of 2013. Let’s hope they get a good chunk of that done by the end of this year, or else the company can expect even more customers to flee.

Dan Hesse photo: Sean Ludwig/VentureBeat

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