Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) on Wednesday released results of drive test data and consumer research that for the second year ranked AT&T in the top spot for overall national wireless network performance.
AT&T’s SVP of Wireless Technology Igal Elbaz called it a big accomplishment for the carrier and told FierceWireless the results don’t come in a vacuum. Other third-party tests this year, including results from Ookla and PCMag also gave AT&T’s network top marks for speed and reliability, which many attributed to AT&T’s simultaneous network enhancements with LTE-Advanced technologies and FirstNet network build.
“We have made a significant capital investment over the last several years, both in spectrum position as well as investing in our network, and we’re seeing this pay off to the benefit of our customers,” Elbaz said.
GWS’ rankings combine data from voice, video, packet data, coverage and reliability metrics, combined for one score that includes results from nearly one million drive miles with 9.4 million controlled tests in 501 markets, across urban and rural areas representing about 94% of the U.S. population. GWS also polled about 5,000 consumers across the U.S. about which mobile experience and network performance measure they care about most, with network test results then weighted against consumers priorities – a factor Elbaz said is very encouraging to AT&T.
According to GWS, Verizon ranked second for best network, followed by T-Mobile in third, and Sprint in last.
In addition to winning “Nation’s Best Network,” GWS said AT&T was the fastest carrier for download speeds including receiving photos, app-related content and videos, while Verizon came out on top for fastest uploads including posting videos and other social media content.
FierceWireless reached out to GWS for specific data points to compare the carriers’ rankings, but additional details were not immediately available at the time of publication.
According to GWS, AT&T had the best data reliability with the highest success rate in completing data tasks as well as top scores for voice with successful call initiations and the lowest number of dropped calls. T-Mobile ranked first for best voice quality on calls.
AT&T also won for best video streaming experience in terms of quality, fastest loading time and least amount of rebuffering. Elbaz said that sweeping the video category is particularly important for AT&T, which is introducing new video products including AT&T TV and later HBO Max and bundling them with wireless service.
When it comes to network enhancement, Elbaz said there is no doubt FirstNet plays a key role, as AT&T secured and has been deploying Band 14 spectrum. He noted the carrier’s one-touch strategy with its FirstNet build — where it uses one tower climb to simultaneously add additional spectrum, deploy technologies including 256 QAM, 4x4 MIMO, carrier aggregation, and LAA, as well as upgrade to 5G-capable hardware — has helped AT&T to be “very efficient” in its network build.
Elbaz said enabling better experiences and faster speeds comes from this combination of adding coverage and capacity and deploying the network into new areas.
“You really need to be good in everything, all aspects of the network and the customer experience in order…to become the best network,” he said.
Prepping for sub-6GHz 5G
GWS found that more networks are deploying and using advanced LTE features since 2018, as carriers move to 5G. AT&T, for example, had the highest increase in 5 channel aggregation usage.
In addition to LTE-A technologies, Elbaz reiterated that AT&T’s network hardware can be upgraded to 5G once the software becomes available and the carrier plans to have a 5G sub-6GHz network before the end of the year, expanding to nationwide availability in the first half of 2020.
So far, AT&T has deployed 5G in select parts of 21 major cities using millimeter wave spectrum, with plans to hit 30 by year-end. AT&T currently only offers its 5G+ service to business customers, and the carrier has been vocal on its view of an initial enterprise-focus for 5G. When asked if the sub-6 GHz flavor of 5G will be a more consumer-focused service, Elbaz said AT&T will enable 5G toward the end of the year with sub-6 GHz for both the carrier’s consumers and business customers.
When it comes to 5G coverage, operators including Verizon and AT&T have talked about dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology, which doesn’t require operators to dedicate spectrum to a specific technology, as part of their 5G plans.
“Down the road we believe dynamic spectrum sharing will become a very important enabler,” Elbaz said of 5G, but stressed that AT&T’s initial sub-6 GHz 5G launch later this year is not dependent on the technology.
“Given the spectrum availability in the U.S., dynamic spectrum sharing is really important because it allows us to be able to use the same spectrum that we’re using for LTE without… needing to decide that spectrum is for LTE or 5G only,” he said.
AT&T plans to start DSS testing toward the end of this year, which will continue into 2020 according to Elbaz, who didn’t disclose when DSS will be available in AT&T’s network. He added that DSS is not what’s enabling AT&T to have its sub-6 GHz 5G network ready for the end of the year, although the carrier hasn’t publicly disclosed exactly which of its current spectrum assets will be used.