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T-Mobile wins 3G shootout, Sprint and Verizon speeds fade

Leah Yamshon, Mark Sullivan | May 22, 2013
As much as we hear about LTE service these days, the fact is that three-quarters of U.S. wireless subscribers still use good old 3G service. For AT&T and T-Mobile, that means HSPA service (although the companies call it "4G"), while for Sprint and Verizon that means CDMA service.

T-Mobile wins again
Ever since the U.S. government blocked the merger of T-Mobile and AT&T in late 2011, T-Mobile has taken on an "if you can't join them, beat them" attitude. The company is uniquely positioned to make bold moves: It is the smallest of the four major U.S. wireless carriers, and therefore it has less to lose from making audacious moves in the marketplace.

Not only has T-Mobile launched its own LTE network, but it has also consistently improved the performance of its HSPA network. It has installed new top-of-the-tower equipment to increase the signal strength in 57 of its markets across the United States, covering more than 170 million people. Its HSPA 21 and HSPA 42 networks are now available to 228 million people in 229 metro areas.

The speed scores show it. T-Mobile's 3G HSPA network pumped out the fastest download and upload speeds of any of the major national carriers in our tests for the second year in a row. Using our (HSPA 14.4) Apple iPhone 4S test phone, we recorded impressive average download speeds of 4.97 mbps, and average upload speeds of just above 1 mbps.

"In less than a year, T-Mobile has made huge progress on an aggressive $4 billion plan to make our strong 4G [HSPA] network even stronger," says T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray. "We've advanced our network to increase signal strength and improve voice and data coverage, and we've retuned our airwaves to launch 4G HSPA+ services in additional spectrum, 1900 MHz, that's compatible with a broader range of devices, including the iPhone 4S."

We recorded T-Mobile's most impressive speeds in Chicago and in cities on the East Coast. The service averaged download speeds of greater than 10 mbps in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. And yet T-Mobile 3G had decidedly poor average speeds in some cities. In Omaha, for example, the speed was just 0.02 mbps for downloads, and the service failed to break the 2-mbps mark in several western cities.

Upload speeds were nothing special, amounting to less than 1 mbps in half of our testing cities. Average upload speeds also fell year-over-year in the eight cities common to both this year's study and last year's tests.

While it's beginning the construction of its LTE networks, T-Mobile is trying to compete with the larger carriers by pushing up the speeds of its HSPA service to 4G-like levels, and selling its service plan and device bundles at lower prices. T-Mobile appears to be relishing its "insurgent" role in the mobile market, and consumers may benefit.

AT&T speeds up
AT&T, too, appears to be stepping on the gas pedal when it comes to network performance improvement.


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