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6/27/2011
02:38 PM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman
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Which Wireless Networks Are Fastest? Verizon And AT&T

In a 21-city test of U.S. 3G and 4G networks, PC Magazine found that Verizon's 4G network performed the fastest overall in major metro areas, but AT&T won in the heartland.

PC Magazine performed an extensive test of the data networks run by AT&T, Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. The goal of the experiment was to determine which 3G/4G technology is truly the fastest.

The magazine loaded up two cars with a total of 16 handsets, custom testing software, power sources, and sent them careening through 6,000 miles worth of American roads during the month of May. Six different drivers piloted the cars through both cityscapes and countrysides, tallying the speed performance in more than 140,000 individual tests of each network as they went. (PCMag did not test voice quality, dropped calls, or strength of the networks involved, only data speeds.)

PCMag broke down the results into a number of different categories, including major regions of the country, as well as individual cities.

Verizon Wireless's new Long Term Evolution network won many regions and the overall national title for sheer speed. PCMag explains, "Verizon's LTE system is remarkably faster than the technologies AT&T, MetroPCS, Sprint and T-Mobile are currently using for '4G.' Even with one hand tied behind its back--a 20% penalty to its speed score for its lack of rural coverage--Verizon's new 4G network trounced the other carriers. In many areas, it was even faster than some DSL or cable connections."

PCMag rated Verizon's network the fastest nationally, as well as in the northeast, southeast, central, and western quadrants of the U.S. It is worth pointing out that Verizon's network is still only six months old, and though adoption of LTE devices is growing swiftly, it is far from the saturation point. In other words, the metro areas that enjoy LTE coverage aren't yet chock full of users sucking down all the bandwidth. Even so, Verizon's results are commendable.

AT&T won for "rural America" and it also came in second to Verizon is many of the other regions tested. PCMag defined rural America as regions outside of the large 21 metro areas, including wide-open country and smaller cities in between. AT&T won this segment for its overall coverage footprint, and the average speed of its network over the larger swaths. Verizon's LTE network, by way of comparison, is limited to major metro areas right now and has a long way to go before it expands into rural America. Verizon's 3G network, which has a sizable footprint, is much slower than the other networks tested.

The individual city results are quite interesting. Drilling down into Boston, for example, PCMag found that Verizon's LTE network trounced the others in terms of download speeds with an average of 9.41 Mbps and a maximum of 15.34 Mbps. Sprint, however, was the closest to Verizon in terms of average download speeds at 3.23 Mbps, and T-Mobile was closest to Verizon in terms of maximum download speeds at 10.82 Mbps.

What's the take-away from all this raw data? First, that nothing is consistent. Network speeds vary by location, networking technology, network operator, handset, and many other factors. For the business looking for the fastest wireless data performance possible, this report is a good starting point. But doing your own homework is important, too. Whether you're a national enterprise or a local business, you have to explore what networks and technologies are right for your company and where it operates.

Given all the coordination and work that PCMag put into its report, I highly suggest you check it out here. The site explains its exact methodology, how it rated results, the exact location points where data was collected, and much, much, more.

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