As smartphone usage has surged, so has the demand for reliable, fast cellular data. Sure, your smartphone can use Wi-Fi to surf the Web, watch video, stream music and download documents. But Wi-Fi isn’t always available or costs extra in some public places.
In the U.S., the fast cellular technology of choice is called 4G LTE. The 4G just means we’re on the fourth generation of cellular data systems and LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, which is the fastest and most consistent form of 4G cellular data. It’s the one that U.S. wireless carriers are competing to offer in as many cities as possible, as quickly as possible.
Verizon Wireless got the jump on deploying LTE and I reported my first tests of its nascent service in January 2011. But now AT&T claims it has almost caught up, and Sprint and T-Mobile are racing to build out their LTE networks.
So I decided to test the availability and speed of the four major U.S. carriers’ LTE coverage in three metro areas where I happened to be in the past month or so. I focused on download speeds because the average consumer is still downloading much more than uploading.
Please note that this wasn’t a scientific test. I didn’t drive the nation in a van jammed with technical gear. I toted around four versions of a major LTE smartphone that supports all four carriers—the iPhone 5S—and ran the same speed test in the same places, 20 times per phone per location. Then I averaged the readings and ranked the results. And I didn’t go into pricing because the companies tend to have pricing plans that are too confusing to lay out in detail here.
Note that, while LTE connections can peak at rates of well over 40 megabits per second, a good average LTE speed is somewhere between 10 and 20 mbps, though the carriers typically promise lower speeds, if they make promises at all. The average speed of a landline Internet connection in the U.S. in the second quarter of this year was 8.7 mbps, according to Internet provider Akamai.
I did the tests in three places. One was my home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. The second was a hotel in midtown Manhattan, near Times Square. The third was a hotel in the heart of Silicon Valley.
The winner, for the first time in any test I’ve run, was AT&T, with an average speed of about 19.7 megabits per second. But AT&T’s victory was secured mainly because of a stupendous performance in New York City, where it dominated its rivals with a stunning average speed of 34.8 mbps.
It was the slowest in my Silicon Valley test and ranked third in the D.C. suburbs. AT&T says it doesn’t promise any range of speeds to its customers.
Verizon Wireless came in second, averaging 16.7 mbps, well above its promised range of 5 to 12 mbps. Verizon wasn’t No. 1 in any of the test locations, but it was the most consistent performer, clustering between 15 and 18.6 mbps.
In each city, my T-Mobile iPhone took longer to find an LTE network than the others, but it did quite respectably, with an average score of about 13.5 mbps, well within its wide promised range of between 6 and 20 mbps. T-Mobile won my test in the D.C. suburbs, with a speed of around 19.5 mbps.
Sprint proved the most problematic. Its overall average was the lowest, at about 10.4 mbps and that was only because it won my Silicon Valley test with a speed of 20.7 mbps. In the other two cities, I had to leave my main testing location to search within a small radius to get a Sprint LTE signal, and the results were by far the worst in those places.
Sprint says its network is still wanting in some places because it is trying to replace technology while customers are still using the network.
Sprint has a new variation on LTE called Sprint Spark that it claims could “surpass the entire U.S. industry in speed capability in 2016.” But the company says in the near future Sprint Spark will only be available on a few phones and in limited portions of five cities, so it wasn’t part of this test.
You may get different outcomes with your phones and services. Locations, times of day, levels of network congestion, phone models and other factors all can affect speeds. Even in my limited tests, I saw big swings. Some of you may not even get LTE at all where you live, typically in rural America.
A good LTE connection should allow you to use your phone (or tablet) to comfortably stream movies and music, peruse large documents in the cloud, surf the Web quickly, traverse social networks with no slowdown, and get email effortlessly, as if you were at home with a good landline connection.
The main conclusion I draw from this exercise is that decent LTE speed isn’t just limited to Verizon anymore, and that’s a good thing.
Corrections & Amplifications
Download speeds for the four main U.S. cellphone carriers’ LTE services in three major U.S. metro areas range from about four to about 35 megabits per second. An earlier version of a graphic in this article incorrectly gave the speeds in thousands of megabits per second. The graphic has been corrected.