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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.

Although AT&T doesn't say exactly how much money it has dropped into its HSPA+ networks over the past year, its speed scores suggest that the investment has been sufficient to meet subscribers' quickly growing demand for data service.

AT&T's 3G service clocked a 20-city average speed of almost 3 mbps. For upload speeds, the service averaged just short of 1 mbps. 

Download speeds were reasonably consistent across most of our testing cities; the service posted its lowest speeds in Philadelphia (0.87 mbps), and its highest speeds in Chicago (3.80 mbps). So in Philly it might take 80 seconds to download a 4.5MB MP3 file using the AT&T 3G network, while in Chicago it might take only 18 seconds (assuming a standard network efficiency of 50 percent).

Still, in the eight cities common to our tests this year and last year, AT&T's download speeds improved only marginally (see the bar chart above), while its average upload speeds remained almost exactly the same. Between our 2011 and 2012 tests, the AT&T 3G service improved considerably; download speeds jumped from 1.63 mbps in 2011 to 2.83 mbps in 2012.

While AT&T is pushing to move as many of its customers as possible onto its new 4G LTE network, it's still maintaining its 3G/HSPA+ service. The company says it will deploy 40,000 small cells and 1000 additional antenna systems nationwide across all networks between now and the end of 2015. That means better quality and coverage--for data as well as for traditional calls and SMS services--in crowded spaces and indoors.

Verizon speeds underwhelm
Verizon does not declare publicly how much it spends on its CDMA network, but its executives say that it intends to maintain the current network's performance until it can move all of its subscribers over to its LTE network.

Verizon 3G averaged .80 (800 kbps) for downloads and .52 (520 kbps) for uploads, on average, in our 20 test cities. Average download speeds broke the 1-mbps threshold only in Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Philadelphia, San Diego, and San Jose. The service clocked its lowest average downloads in San Francisco, coming in at a sluggish 300 kilobits per second. Downloading an MP3 at that rate would take almost 4 minutes. Verizon 3G upload speeds clustered around the 500-kbps mark for the majority of our test cities.

Verizon's 3G also appears to have gotten somewhat slower over the past year. Download speeds broke the one-megabit-per-second mark (1.05 mbps) in last year's study, when we tested using the HTC Droid Incredible. But when we tested the network in the same cities this year the network averaged only 0.72 mbps. Average upload speeds also moved down slightly in those cities, from roughly 0.73 mbps last year to 0.54 mbps this year.


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