All three agreed that AT&T's LTE network had the fastest average download speed, but each had a different speed: 18.3M, 17.2M and 11.6Mbps. AT&T Mobility's headquarters is in the Atlanta area. Verizon LTE was second, in two of the tests, with 10.8M and 8.79Mbps. T-Mobile - with its HSPA + 4G network - was second in one test, with 7.31Mbps and almost tied with Verizon for second in another - 8.36Mbps for T-Mobile vs. 8.79 for Verizon. Sprint was consistently fourth: with 3.24M, 3.65M and 5.1Mbps.
In Dallas, here's the break down ranked by average download speed, according to the three tests:
PC Magazine: AT&T - 14.6 Mbps, Verizon - 10.72M, T-Mobile - 7.89M, Sprint - 3.09M
PC World: AT&T - 10.22Mbps, Verizon - 7.52M, T-Mobile - 3.32M, Sprint - 2.75M
RootMetrics: AT&T - 17.2Mbps, Verizon - 11.4M, T-Mobile - 8.0M, Sprint - 3.8M
So even if you do your homework on the best carrier for your needs, be aware that your experience may vary.
One area that LTE subscribers can expect big changes in is data plans. Carriers are experimenting with new options, though today the choice is between the tiered plans from AT&T and Verizon and the currently "unlimited" plans from Sprint and T-Mobile.
"The carriers are being mostly accurate in saying that 2 Gigabytes covers the preponderance of usage for most subscribers," says RootMetrics' Bill Moore. "But data caps affect your usage of that phone: your data plan changes the consumer's behavior." Some early adopters with a big appetite for mobile data are migrating to Sprint or even T-Mobile as a result, he says.
Carriers, analysts and vendors agree that subscribers who move to LTE at least double their data usage. Verizon says that, as of June 2012, about 12% of its contract subscribers were using LTE. Regardless of the exact percentage, the LTE users now account for about one-third of Verizon's total data traffic, according to the carrier.
"The reason data consumption goes up as it does, is video," says Roger Entner, principal with Recon Analytics, a telecom consultancy. "With LTE, we're now watching video on mobile devices like we watch it on television, with no buffering. About 60% of network data traffic is video, and that's rising."
Shared plans let multiple devices dip into a common data bucket, says ABI's Philip Solis. "But there are per-device per-month fees, which can vary depending on what kind of device you have, plus the costs of a larger monthly data plan." That can quickly add a lot of money to the monthly bill for a user or family.