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AT&T has fastest LTE service, T-Mobile off to strong start

Leah Yamshon, Mark Sullivan | May 23, 2013
For the second year in a row, AT&T's LTE service has proven to be the fastest in our survey of wireless broadband performance across the United States. T-Mobile LTE appears to be spreading rapidly, and is pumping out high speeds. Verizon LTE is reasonably quick and easily the most pervasive, while Sprint LTE lacks speed in urban centers.

For the second year in a row, AT&T's LTE service has proven to be the fastest in our survey of wireless broadband performance across the United States. T-Mobile LTE appears to be spreading rapidly, and is pumping out high speeds. Verizon LTE is reasonably quick and easily the most pervasive, while Sprint LTE lacks speed in urban centers.

Those are the top-line findings of our most recent study of real-world wireless broadband performance in America. In March and April, we measured the LTE services of the four major national wireless carriers in 20 cities from coast to coast.

LTE goes mainstream
A quarter of U.S. cellular subscribers now have LTE service, and analysts expect that number to grow to nearly 70 percent in 2017. More and more new phones will bear the LTE label, and phones that connect only to 3G service will become increasingly rare.

In fact, 3G networks were originally designed for voice, not data. The carriers retrofitted them with IP technology to make them convey data, but you can retrofit only so much until returns (in speed and capacity) begin to diminish. New LTE networks are constructed from top to bottom with IP as their main language, so they are far faster, more economical, and more flexible than the clunky old 3G networks. But 4G is very expensive to build from the ground up, as investors in the Big Four wireless carriers can attest.

The advent of the iPhone and then Android phones--plus their insatiable hunger for bandwidth--caught the carriers by surprise. Since then, the carriers have embraced the high-margin business of moving mobile data, and have invested billions in upgrading old networks and building new ones.

Somewhat ironically, it is the carrier that was originally (and very publicly) stung by the mobile-data crunch that now leads the race for faster data speeds.

AT&T is still the fastest
About 30 percent of AT&T's smartphone customers now use an LTE device, the company says. AT&T tells its customers to expect the same upload and download speeds from its LTE network as Verizon does, about 5 to 12 megabits per second for downloads and 2 to 5 mbps for uploads. AT&T delivers a bit more, pushing the high end of the download range and exceeding the upload range.

In our tests, AT&T's network averaged download speeds of 13.15 mbps, and 6.45 mbps for uploads. We saw average download speeds of above 15 mbps in six cities: Boston, Denver, Las Vegas, San Diego, San Jose, and Seattle. The average speeds in two of those cities, Denver and San Jose, surpassed 21 mbps, marking the only 20-plus-mbps showings of any service in our study. AT&T LTE clocked average download speeds of greater than 10 mbps in 16 of the 20 cities we tested.

 

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