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AT&T clocks best overall speeds with 3G/4G combo

Leah Yamshon,Mark Sullivan | May 27, 2013
When your cool new LTE phone loses touch with your LTE network, the 3G radio inside the phone will immediately connect to the older 3G network for your data service. But 3G is slower, so the downshift needs to be a smooth one—one that doesn't yank you down to a speed so slow, you can't continue what you're doing.

For now, however, 3G still matters. A lot. Only a quarter of cellular subscribers use LTE networks today; the rest use 3G.

"Despite all of the hype around 4G, the performance of 3G networks remains an important consideration; with most service providers still expanding the coverage and capacity of their 4G LTE networks, 3G is often the dominant technology used by most customers today," says Dan Hays, US wireless advisory leader at PwC.

"The continued advances in 3G speeds demonstrate that service providers are not standing still there, either; they continue to invest in maintaining and even advancing performance, as 3G networks will continue to be used for many years to come," Hays notes.

The price of speed
But how much do these combined buckets of speed really cost you?

When you buy a smartphone (or some other mobile Internet device), you buy a data plan too. In the end it's the voice, text, and data plan that costs you more money, not the phone. Of the services you buy, the data service costs you the most. And there's no guarantee of the quality of data service you're going to get.

Our speed tests take some of the mystery out of the question by providing some idea of the real speeds of each service. The following chart demonstrates how much you're paying for that speed, by equating it with the dollar amount you might pay every month for your phone and service plan.

To come up with these results, we figured the total monthly cost of owning each of the phones in our speed tests--the 16GB iPhone 4S and the 16GB Samsung Galaxy Note II. That total includes the cost of the device, monthly plan charges, and any one-time activation fee the carrier charges. We added up all of these costs over a two-year contract period, and then divided by 24 to get an estimated monthly cost. (Click on the chart for a larger image.)

What it all means
The prices in the chart above aren't meant to reflect actual data-service costs. It's the difference in the cost per mbps of the various services that's meaningful. For a 4G/LTE phone (here, the Samsung Galaxy Note II), you're likely to get the most bang for your buck from AT&T. You'll get the most megabytes per second of data throughput at the best price, at $5.27 per megabit per second of throughput.

T-Mobile is less than a dollar behind, and Verizon's 4G speed prices are only $2 behind AT&T's. Sprint's 4G network is by far the most expensive for LTE phones, at about $10 more per megabit of throughput than AT&T's.

Both AT&T and T-Mobile have 4G HSPA+ as the 4G "fallback" network, meaning that when a smartphone cannot pick up an LTE signal, it will pick up the HSPA+ network instead. That could explain why AT&T and T-Mobile share such a close lead for 4G LTE network speeds: Their secondary, fallback networks provide higher speeds than those of Verizon and Sprint provide.


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