Leap Wireless International flipped the switch today on its second LTE market in Las Vegas.

The launch brings the Cricket Communications parent company closer to its goal of covering 21 million people with the new network by the end of this year, but its LTE coverage is still scarce compared to other operators. 

The operator waited 10 months to light up LTE in Las Vegas after launching its first LTE market in Tucson, Ariz. last December.

The slow pace of deployment puts the prepaid provider further behind its national rivals at a time when it is struggling to maintain its place in the no-contract market. 

Leap lost 289,000 customers during the second quarter as churn spiked to 4.4 percent. The disappointing results prompted Leap to short Sprint on some of the $75 million it owes for the use of Sprint's 3G network, which Leap uses to provide its Cricket Communications customers with nationwide roaming outside of its limited footprint.

Meanwhile, MetroPCS, arguably Leap's closest rival, is being bought out by T-Mobile USA, leaving Leap with one less acquisition target that could be used to bolster its competitive position. MetroPCS finished deploying LTE across its 14-city footprint in April 2011.

President and CEO Doug Hutcheson said in a statement that Leap's LTE service would go live in additional markets this year, but did not name specific cities.

Leap's LTE network is slated to cover at least two-thirds of its footprint over the next two to three years, a deployment schedule that leaves it well behind top-tier postpaid competitors AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint. T-Mobile has yet to launch LTE, but has long marketed its HSPA+ network as 4G.

The rolllout calendar is a "product of thoughtful spectrum management," Leap said. 

The network will be three to 15 times faster than Leap's current 3G speeds and will span more than 80 percent of its current footprint in Las Vegas, Leap said. 

Earlier this year, the operator signed up for wholesale access to Clearwire's still unbuilt TD-LTE network to add coverage and capacity to its own LTE service.

Leap said in its most recent quarterly report that it is continuing to look for “cost-effective” ways to expand its LTE coverage, “including by deploying facilities-based coverage and by entering into partnerships or joint ventures with other carriers.

Hutcheson also said the operator expects to introduce "several high-quality LTE smartphones" before the end of the year, but again did not provide details about the handsets. 

The service is so far only available on a Cricket USB modem, the $150 Huawei Boltz. Data plans range from $35 to $80 per month.

Leap’s next earnings report for the third quarter is scheduled for Nov. 7.