In a head-to-head comparison around the country, Root Metrics found that AT&T's LTE 4G network offered consistently faster average and peak download and upload speeds than competitors Sprint, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless.
In order to make this determination, Root Metrics gathered more than 725,000 data samples across the top 77 U.S. markets during the second half of 2012. It compared LTE upload and download speeds, as well as the data speeds of the fallback 3G networks where 4G wasn't available. AT&T's 4G network may be the fastest, but Verizon has a leg up on AT&T in terms of overall LTE network size. Let's dive into the results.
AT&T's LTE 4G network provided average download speeds of 18.6 Mbps, with peak speeds bursting at a staggering 57.7 Mbps. Upload speeds averaged 9.0 Mbps, with peaks reaching 19.6 Mbps. AT&T's LTE network isn't the only network it markets as "4G." AT&T likes to label its HSPA+ network as 4G in advertisements and marketing materials, which could lead to some consumer confusion. Where LTE isn't available, most of AT&T's devices fall back to HSPA+. AT&T's HSPA+ network delivered average download speeds of 4.3 Mbps and average upload speeds of 1.1 Mbps.
[ Want to know how Verizon's LTE network helped InformationWeek contributor Kurt Marko take the cloud plunge? See Chromebook Pixel: My First Week Living In Cloud. ]
Root offered some interesting perspective on these results. First, AT&T's LTE network was present in only 47 of the 77 test markets. Second, in markets where AT&T says LTE is available, Root was only able to connect to LTE 81.7% of the time. The remaining 18.3% of connection attempts were stuck on HSPA+.
Sprint's numbers aren't as impressive. Sprint's LTE network provided average download speeds of 10.3 Mbps, with peaks hitting 32.7 Mbps. Uploads averaged 4.4 Mbps and peaked at 9.9 Mbps. When LTE wasn't available, Sprint's aging CDMA-EVDO 3G network provided awful data speeds. Downloads via 3G averaged 1.6 Mbps and uploads averaged 0.7 Mbps. Sprint's network was present in only five of the 77 test markets. Worse, in markets where Sprint advertises its LTE network, Root was only able to connect to LTE 50.2% of the time. Sprint has a lot of work to do to get is LTE network up to speed (pun very much intended).
T-Mobile only offers LTE in one market: Las Vegas. This meant Root was limited to testing T-Mobile's HSPA+ network around the country. T-Mobile says it offers HSPA+ at the theoretical max speed of 42 Mbps on most of its network at this point. Despite such marketing numbers, it demonstrated average downloads of 7.3 Mbps and average uploads of 1.5 Mbps. T-Mobile's HSPA+ network flat-out crushes AT&T's, and offers significantly faster speeds than Sprint's 3G network.
Finally, Verizon. Verizon's LTE 4G network offered average download speeds of 14.3 Mbps, with peaks reaching 49.3 Mbps. Both numbers fall short of AT&T's best average and peaks. In terms of uploads, Verizon's offered averages of 8.5 Mbps, with peaks reaching 19.7 Mbps. Those results mirror AT&T's closely. When LTE wasn't available and Root was forced to connect to Verizon's CDMA-EVDO 3G network, speeds plummeted. Average downloads rated 0.9 Mbps and average uploads rated 0.7 Mbps.
Verizon excelled in two key areas, however. Of the 77 test markets, Verizon's LTE 4G network was present in all 77. Further, 93.2% of attempts to connect to the LTE network were successful, compared to only 81.7% of such attempts on AT&T's network.
What are the take-aways here? While AT&T's LTE 4G network is the fastest, Verizon's is more pervasive and offers a higher chance of connecting. Sprint and T-Mobile are trailing badly in the LTE 4G race, in comparison. AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile all say they'll have much bigger LTE 4G footprints by the end of the year, while Verizon is largely finished with its LTE deployment. With its LTE network complete, Verizon can start working to improve speeds and capacity.