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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.

Still, the scores we recorded this year were within the range of what Verizon tells its 3G customers to expect--download speeds of between 0.60 mbps and 1.40 mbps, and upload speeds of 0.50 to 0.80 mbps.

Verizon's 3G CDMA network covers a huge area of the United States, and now provides the data service for about 70 percent of the carrier's subscribers. Verizon says it continues to add cell towers to boost signal strength and keep rural areas connected, especially in regions where 4G LTE is not yet available.

Verizon argues that the reliability and reach of the service is really what matters. "For us the most important thing is accessibility," says Mike Haberman, Verizon VP of network operations. "Our philosophy is to get everybody on the network; it's not necessarily all about speed."

Verizon claims that it's seeing more and more of its customer base switching to smartphones as their contracts expire: 61 percent of Verizon's customers currently have smartphones with data plans. Of those, however, the majority are 3G CDMA phones; only 40 percent, Verizon says, are LTE-capable.

Verizon executives have talked about phasing out the company's 3G service within the next decade. But actual voice calls are still dependent on CDMA, so Verizon first needs to introduce voice over LTE before we'll see that phase-out begin. According to CFO Fran Shammo, the company plans to launch its first 4G-only devices as soon as voice over LTE becomes a reality.

Sprint 3G still suffering
The other CDMA 3G network in our study, Sprint's network, fared somewhat worse over the past year, despite the carrier's well-publicized "Network Vision" improvement plan. The throughput speeds of the Sprint 3G network declined considerably between our 2011 and 2012 tests, and retreated still more in this year's tests. In our tests this year, Sprint 3G showed dismal average download speeds of roughly 400 kbps (0.40 mbps), and upload speeds of 310 kbps (0.31 mbps).

"We realize customers may experience slower speeds until upgrades are completed in their neighborhoods, as we are simultaneously operating the old and building the new 3G network," says Sprint spokesperson Kelly Schlageter. "In some markets, such as Atlanta and Dallas, the 4G LTE deployment is nearly complete, while 3G work has just begun."

Sprint 3G's worst showings came in Atlanta (200-kbps downloads) and Dallas (300-kbps downloads). The service did not hit average download speeds of greater than 1 mbps in any of the cities we tested. Upload speeds were no better, reaching the 500-kbps mark in only one city, San Francisco.

The company claims that 80 percent of its customers have 3G/CDMA devices. As part of Network Vision, Sprint is souping up the CDMA network equipment at its sites to increase signal strength, which will result in better data speeds and coverage for 3G devices, the company says.


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