The Fastest Mobile Networks 2011
ARTICLE DATE: 06.27.11
By Sascha Segan and PCMag.com Staff
With smartphone innovation moving at a breakneck pace, new tablets hitting the market all the time, and an increasing number of people using cellular modems and mobile hotspots to get online on the go, access to speedy data coverage is becoming more essential every day.
But you shouldn’t believe the hype: All “4G” is not the same. In a 21-city test across the United States, we found that Verizon’s new 4G LTE
network is much faster than other mobile Web options, with speeds that often exceed home Internet connections.
There’s no question that 4G is spreading across the nation, but there’s a lot of confusion over what 4G exactly is. AT&T, MetroPCS, Sprint,
T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless aren’t just using varied technologies; sometimes they’re implementing the same technology very differently. So we sent six drivers on a cross- country road trip in Ford cars with lots of mobile phones and custom software designed by network testing firm Sensorly to see just how fast these 4G Internet connections really are. (See How We Tested for more details/Below.)
Last year we tested with laptops. For our second annual test, we switched to phones, to more accurately reflect how Americans are using the mobile Internet. According to research firm NPD, as of the first quarter of 2011, more than half of all new mobile phones purchased in the U.S. were smartphones, and analysts have projected that will grow.
We didn’t test voice quality or dropped calls, which we’ve already surveyed, as part of our annual Readers’ Choice Awards. The tests for this story were all about mobile Internet. We ran more than 140,000 tests in
21 cities. Not all the networks were available in all the cities, as you’ll see on the individual city pages. Most notably, cities generally have either Cricket or MetroPCS as a local option.
We didn’t test coverage either, but our technology partner Sensorly does. Head over to the company’s website, or download the Sensorly app from the Android Market to see crowdsourced coverage maps for all the major U.S. mobile carriers, enhanced with the data from our test drives.
Bear in mind, mobile networks are constantly changing, and almost always for the better. And because speeds vary based on tower location, network load, device used, and even the weather, we can’t predict performance in a specific location; rather, we’re giving a snapshot of a few days’ worth of usage in several locations across a metro area. So without further delay, we give you the winners:
Northeast: Verizon 4G
Verizon’s new 4G network covers many of the Northeast’s top metro areas, including Boston, the Hartford-New York-Philadelphia corridor, Pittsburgh, and the Baltimore-Washington corridor. We tested in
Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. In those areas, while T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 21 network is also speedy, Verizon’s 4G is by far the fastest. Outside the metro areas, AT&T offered the best balance of speed and coverage.
Southeast: Verizon 4G
In the Southeast, we tested in Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Miami/Fort Lauderdale. Verizon’s 4G network came out the fastest in every city, while outside the cities, AT&T and T-Mobile virtually tied for best results. Pick Verizon for speed and AT&T for coverage.
Central: Verizon 4G
Our Central region included our only city without Verizon 4G, Kansas City. We also tested in Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma City and Dallas. Even with a zero score for Kansas City, Verizon 4G was the fastest network for the region. (It also covers a large area around Chicago and in central Oklahoma.) The Central cities were some of the nation’s fastest, overall. We saw leading speeds in Chicago, Dallas, and Detroit.
West: Verizon 4G
Verizon’s 4G system was the fastest in the West as well. We tested in the states of Arizona, California, and New Mexico, as we couldn’t get our drivers as far as the Northwest. Verizon 4G won every city it was in thanks to its stellar download speeds. Outside the cities, AT&T delivered the fastest connections, but Verizon’s much slower 3G network was the most reliable.
Rural America: AT&T
For us, “rural America” included everywhere we drove that wasn’t in one of our 21 metro areas—not only wide-open spaces in Arizona, but mid-sized cities like Macon, Georgia and Midland, Texas.
The new 4G networks are generally polka dots on the U.S. map, or bubbles around the nation’s major cities. In the spaces between them, AT&T won the crown for the best balance of speed and consistency on its 3G, HSPA 7.2 network.
Nationwide: Verizon 4G
Overall, 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-percent 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.
Different Carriers, Different Strengths
Beyond the speed scores, each of the eight networks we tested (Sprint and Verizon each have two) showed different strengths.
AT&T’s nationwide 3G network still offers the best balance of speed and performance outside major cities, but the giant carrier is struggling in big cities against Verizon’s LTE network and T-Mobile’s nimble HSPA+
technology. AT&T is moving to HSPA+ 21 right now and plans to introduce an LTE network this summer, so
we could see the carrier’s position recover in 2012.
Verizon Wireless has two very different networks: a slow, but reliable nationwide 3G network and a blazingly fast 4G LTE network with limited coverage. The combination seems to be working out, as Verizon’s
4G system swept our Fastest Mobile Networks awards while its 3G voice network got top marks in our
Readers’ Choice awards for its terrific coverage and call quality.
T-Mobile was the second-fastest network nationwide, and it’s continuing to upgrade its speeds all the time. The carrier’s existing HSPA+ 21 network is being replaced by HSPA+ 42, which could provide LTE-like speeds. (See our review of the T-Mobile Rocket 3.0 4G Laptop Stick for a first look at HSPA+ 42). Of course, all of this could come to an end if AT&T buys T-Mobile, as the larger company has pledged to shut down T-Mobile’s network to use the airwaves for LTE.
Sprint is in the toughest position in our tests. The carrier is struggling with speed and consistency, and the partner it relies on for its WiMAX network, Clearwire, has perpetual financial problems. But Sprint has one huge advantage: the nation’s only truly unlimited 4G plan, making it the only network that you can use to replace a home Internet connection.
Sprint’s 4G network has upload speeds that are artificially capped to 1Mbps, as our testing showed. In June, Sprint announced that it would be raising the cap at some undefined point in the future to 1.5Mbps. That isn’t reflected in our results, which were tested in May.
We recalculated our numbers to check Sprint’s scores to see if its upload speeds were increased by 50 percent in every city. That wouldn’t necessarily happen, of course, but it was worth checking out. Faster uploads would definitely solve some of Sprint’s problems. A 50-percent boost to upload speeds would have made Sprint 4G the winner in Kansas City, put it in second place to Verizon 4G in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville, and made it tie for second with T-Mobile in Atlanta and Las Vegas.
Cricket is a low-cost carrier available in 12 of our 21 cities. While its 3G network is comparatively slow, it currently charges $55 per month for unlimited smartphone usage, which is considerably less than the major players. It also covers many smaller cities. Cricket will be introducing an LTE network next year.
MetroPCS, like Verizon Wireless, offers LTE. But the small carrier, available in 11 of our 21 cities, is doing something very different with its 4G; rather than offering spectacular speeds, it’s going for merely decent speeds at very low rates. The carrier’s average speed is like a very good 3G network, but unlimited talk,
text and Internet access costs just $60 a month—or about half of what Verizon charges.
Are You Getting 4G?
It’s a common general term, but “4G” means different things to different people. It depends who you ask. This year, five different mobile carriers are offering 4G connectivity in different parts of America. But as our
21-city tests show, AT&T, MetroPCS, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless all deliver very different coverage, speeds, and even technologies.
The gold standard for 4G is LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution. LTE is a brand-new network, which isn’t compatible with older devices, and it can be stunningly fast. Verizon’s current system sometimes shows us download speeds as fast as 20-30 Mbps, speedier than most home cable connections.
LTE is a global standard, although many U.S. LTE phones aren’t anticipated to work globally because our frequency bands are different from the rest of the world’s. LTE will eventually completely replace existing
mobile networks, both for data and phone calls. Verizon and MetroPCS have both said they’re going to use
VoLTE, or voice-over-LTE, for phone calls starting in 2012.
That’s not to say everyone’s LTE system is the same. Verizon and MetroPCS have taken very different paths. Verizon is trying to cover the whole nation with super-fast LTE by 2013. MetroPCS only covers 14 regions, and has developed a network with much slower speeds so it can offer extremely low prices.
Eventually, everyone is moving to LTE. AT&T is launching LTE in five cities this summer, and AT&T and
T-Mobile have framed their potential merger as being about expanding LTE coverage. Sprint’s current 4G network provider, Clearwire, has been testing LTE. Cricket and U.S. Cellular have also confirmed that they are launching LTE networks this year.
A new entrant, LightSquared, wants to build an LTE network which it would share with Sprint, Cricket and smaller firms, but LightSquared has been caught in battles with the government and the GPS industry over its network interfering with GPS because of the frequency band it uses.
You can think of the other “4G” standards out there as interim steps.
Sprint was the first U.S. carrier to introduce 4G with its WiMAX network back in 2008. At first, it looked like WiMAX would become a major competitor to LTE, the way Verizon/Sprint’s CDMA dukes it out with AT&T and T-Mobile’s GSM cellular technology. But now it’s looking like WiMAX is fading over the long run.
AT&T and T-Mobile are currently billing HSPA+ as 4G. HSPA+ is a smooth upgrade for existing 3G devices, and it works with current phones. In fact, because a big part of the HSPA+ upgrade is adding faster Internet connections (known as backhaul) to existing towers, HSPA+ can make 3G phones faster, too. There are different levels of HSPA+, as well. AT&T is currently installing the most basic, called HSPA+ 21, while
T-Mobile is in the process of upgrading to a faster mode, HSPA+ 42.
To further confuse things, AT&T and T-Mobile are also calling slower HSPA 14.4 phones like the T-Mobile G2x and the Motorola Atrix “4G,” although T-Mobile’s own CTO once said that shouldn’t be the case. We draw the line at HSPA+ 21.
Fast, But Lim ited Connections
4G is lightning fast, but it still isn’t generally a replacement for a home broadband connection. That’s because, except for Sprint, the 4G providers slap very low data caps on their services.
After just 5GB for most subscribers-less than a third of what AT&T says its home cable customers use each month-wireless customers find their speeds cut down or they rack up additional monthly charges. Sprint’s
4G network offers the only truly unlimited plan.
Coverage is spreading, but it’s also still limited. We found multiple 4G options in most of our 21 cities. Verizon’s 4G network now covers 74 metro areas. T-Mobile has HSPA+ 42 in 96 metro areas, according to the carrier, and MetroPCS covers 14 regions with LTE. Sprint’s 4G partner Clearwire says it covers more
than 80 cities.
This includes both larger and smaller locales. Sprint’s 4G is available on two Hawaiian islands and in Boise,
Idaho. Verizon’s 4G just came to Lansing, Michigan and T-Mobile proudly reports that it has 4G in Bentonville, Arkansas. For a quick look at carrier’s 4G coverage as of June 1, 2011, see the slideshow. Note, however, that AT&T does not offer a map of its 4G coverage, and that more 4G markets have been added in June.
Some cities are favored more highly than others. Philadelphia and Las Vegas residents have also always been blessed when it comes to next-gen mobile networks. And after a slow start, New York City residents now have four 4G choices.
If you’re in rural America, it may be a while before you see 4G. Verizon has pledged to cover almost its
entire national network with 4G by 2013. AT&T says it will cover 80 percent of Americans with LTE by 2013. U.S. Cellular, a major rural player, has only promised so far that it will cover 25 percent of its subscribers by the end of 2011, with more to come in 2012. (U.S. Cellular declined participation in our tests.)
When we do this study in 2012, AT&T, Cricket and U.S. Cellular will have turned on LTE, T-Mobile’s HSPA+
42 will be much more widespread, and Sprint may be switching to LTE. Hopefully, coverage areas will be wider, too. Will Verizon Wireless still rule? Check back next year.
How We Tested
This year’s wireless network tests were more involved, and on a larger scale, than last year’s. We used 16 handsets shepherded by six drivers to 21 cities, covering more than 6,000 miles. Here’s how we did it:
Ford was gracious enough to loan us two cars, a Ford Focus and a Ford Fiesta. In each of those cars we loaded a Duracell Digital Inverter 400 to power eight phones (we also had a Samsung Epic for Tweeting), one from each of our 3G or 4G networks. The phones we used included:
AT&T: Samsung Infuse 4G Cricket: LG Optimus C
MetroPCS: Samsung Galaxy Indulge
Sprint 3G: HTC EVO 4G Sprint 4G: HTC EVO 4G
T-Mobile: Samsung Galaxy S 4G Verizon 3G: Droid Incredible by HTC Verizon 4G: HTC Thunderbolt
Because of the different technologies involved, we used separate phones to test Sprint’s and Verizon’s 3G
and 4G networks, but we couldn’t separate AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s 3G areas from 4G areas.
On each phone, we loaded custom speed test software from Sensorly, a French network testing firm. The software tests HTTP uploads and downloads, UDP streams at 80Kbps and 400Kbps, signal strength and network consistency, recorded as the number of tests that achieve the ITU 3G standard of 144Kbps. The tests run automatically for 25 seconds every 3 minutes.
In each city, we tried to make at least 10 stops of 15 minutes each, at least a mile apart. We also left the software running while the car was moving. In rural areas, we just drove naturally, stopping for gas or when
we were tired or hungry, letting the test software run most of the time.
How We Calculated the Speed Index
The PCMag Mobile Speed Index is a weighted average taking into account several factors. Of 100 points:
• HTTP average download speeds=40 points
• HTTP average upload speeds=20 points
• The percentage of HTTP downloads achieving 3G (144Kbps or greater) status, marking a consistent 3G
• Successful 80Kbps (audio) and 400Kbps (video) streaming over UDP, with less than 1 percent packet loss=10 points
• Successful 400Kbps (video) streaming over UDP, with less than 1 percent packet loss=10 points
The HTTP downloads and uploads simulate Web browsing and file downloads, so they got a lot of weight. The UDP streaming tests simulate apps like VOIP and video calls, YouTube, and Pandora. The index is normalized against the best result in each category for the geography being measured. (In other words, the best carrier in a given comparison for each test got the maximum score for each test.)
The regional scores were an average of all of the cities across the region, counting the rural results for the region as an extra city. If a carrier was not available in one of a region’s cities, it got a zero for that city and its score was lowered accordingly.
For the rural regions, only the four national networks (AT&T, Sprint 3G, T-Mobile and Verizon 3G) were tested and eligible for awards.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does all of this data tell us? Our tests will give you information about mobile broadband Web
connections from smartphones, tablets, and laptops. The results tell you which networks are the fastest, and which are the most consistent.
How did we pick the cities? We wanted to get a range of cities each about a day’s drive apart, with as many cities with 4G networks as possible.
How did we pick the carriers? We tested six out of the top seven U.S. wireless carriers. U.S. Cellular declined to be involved with this year’s story.
How did we pick the phones? We went for solid, reliable, and popular phones with very similar software and hardware, but each network’s fastest possible modem. All the phones run Android 2.2 with single-core processors at about 1GHz, except for two. The AT&T phone runs at 1.2GHz, but it was the only phone we could find with an AT&T HSPA+ 4G modem, and the Cricket phone runs at 600MHz, but it’s Cricket’s fastest Android 2.2 phone.
What about dropped calls? None of our tests involved phone calls. We covered call quality in our Reader’s
Choice awards this year; US Cellular and Verizon Wireless won the awards.
To review the actual locations or testing spots within the tested cities, please visit