March 14, 2011, 10:39 AM — By now you've seen all the ads pitching wireless companies' new 4G mobile broadband services and devices. But beyond all the buzzwords and hype, which companies can reliably provide next-generation speed?
We decided to find out by testing each of the four major national carriers--AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon--in 260 locations spread among 13 U.S. cities. We found some clear winners and losers, and some good news about wireless service in the United States as a whole. Here are our conclusions.
Wireless data speeds have soared: Since this time last year, the major wireless carriers, as a group, have increased their average download speeds for laptop-modem users by more than threefold, an apparent result of their urgent transition from 3G to 4G network technology. (We measured the best service we could get--3G or 4G--in each testing location.) Over laptop modems, the Big Four carriers now have a collective average download speed of roughly 3.5 megabits per second in our 13 testing cities, versus a nearly 1-mbps average download speed in those cities at the beginning of 2010, a remarkable improvement.
In our previous wireless-network performance studies, we measured the "reliability" of the data service, expressed as the percentage of tests in which we could obtain a good connection. But our test results show that network service has improved to the point where it's rare to find an unusable signal or no signal at all. So we have retired our reliability measurement--another testament to the dramatic improvements of the past year.
Verizon's 4G LTE is for real: Verizon's 4G LTE service, which is now in 38 U.S. markets, was widely available in 12 of our 13 testing cities. (We didn't go out of our way to test in areas served by Verizon's LTE network; we haven't changed our list of testing cities in the three years we've done these tests.) Our laptop-modem tests on Verizon clocked speeds that were far faster than those on competing 4G networks in the same tests (twice as fast as the second-fastest service, in fact). Verizon's network had an average download speed of roughly 6.5 mbps and an average upload speed of 5.0 mbps.