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Sprint to keep unlimited data plans, launch 4G LTE network early 2012

iPhone 4 with Sprint Logo

Sprint has confirmed rumors that it will keep its unlimited data plans, making it the only top-three wireless carrier to offer such an option, reports Jessica Dolcourt at CNet. Confirmation comes from Sprint’s chief technology officer, Stephen Bye, who addressed a crowd at the 2011 GigaOm Mobilize conference in San Francisco on Monday.

Sprint currently offers unlimited voice and data to smartphone customers for $99 per month. Both Verizon and AT&T, the two largest wireless carriers in the US, have done away with their unlimited plans altogether. AT&T currently offers unlimited voice for $69.99, and charges $15 for 200 MB per month of data, up to $45 for 4 GB per month. Verizon has a similar deal, offering 2 GB per month for $30 up to 10 GB per month for $80.

Despite Bye’s assurances that it will maintain an unlimited data plan, he cautions that doing so remains an expensive and complicated endeavor.

“There’s clearly a cost to support unlimited,” said Bye. He added that there is “pressure” from the market to continue to offer unlimited data. In addition, “[t]here’s a challenge for all engineers to work on how we get the cost structure down,” he said.

Two changes at Sprint could put the unlimited plan in jeopardy there, as well. The first is that Sprint may join Verizon and AT&T as a carrier of Apple’s iPhone. Apple will announce the next iPhone at a press event on October 4, and some expect Sprint will be added to the list. If so, Spring can expect an influx of new, data-hungry users, which may cause problems for Sprint’s system.

The second change is the addition on a 4G LTE network, which was confirmed by Sprint chief executive Dan Hesse this week. The company, which currently offers WiMax 4G, has already begun installing LTE equipment, and testing the new network in certain areas. Hesse says Sprint will formally unveil its LTE plans on October 7.