AT&T scores fastest 5G network, Verizon’s availability drags down speed

award trophy
Speeds on AT&T’s 5G network jumped more than 10 Mbps over the past three months to 75.59 Mbps. (Getty Images)

While Verizon and T-Mobile lately seem to be competing largely with each other over network prowess, new results from Ookla named AT&T as the fastest U.S. mobile operator in Q4 – for both 4G and 5G.

Average mobile download speeds overall climbed quickly in the U.S. during the fourth quarter – jumping more than 20 Mbps from about 47.13 Mbps in September to 67.33 Mbps in December, according to the latest Speedtest Global Index. That pushed the U.S. into the top 20 for global speed rankings, up from 33rd at the end of the third quarter.

AT&T claimed network bragging rights for the top speed spot in the U.S. overall in Q4, with an Ookla Speedtest Speed Score of 50.27 – roughly three points higher than T-Mobile and nearly 10 points higher than fourth-place Verizon. Ookla is still reporting T-Mobile and Sprint separately until their post-merger network integration is fully complete (the latter placed third with a one-point lead on Verizon).

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Measures of both upload and download speeds are incorporated in Speed Scores, with 90% of the final attributed to download and remaining 10% attributed to upload.

Notably, AT&T also nabbed the number one position for fastest 5G speeds while Verizon dropped to last place. 

Ookla Speedtest speed score Q4 2020
Speedtest 5G Speed Score Q4 2020 (Ookla)

With its initial millimeter wave focused 5G strategy, Verizon often found itself at the top in terms of speed rankings and far outpacing competitors, but with barely-there availability.

For example, Ookla results in Q3 showed Verizon’s 5G speed score at a whopping 792.5 Mbps, versus its closest competitor AT&T at 65.22. However, at that time Verizon users with a capable device were only connected to 5G a mere 0.6% of the time versus AT&T at 18.4%. 

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Fast forward and as noted in the analysis, Q4 saw a significant change to Verizon’s 5G network. The carrier rolled out ‘5G Nationwide’ using sub-6 GHz spectrum and dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology. That greatly expanded Verizon’s 5G footprint (covering 230 million people as of mid-December) and also coincided with the launch of the first 5G-capable iPhone.

This time around AT&T is top for speed but last in time spent on 5G (albeit not as dramatic as the disparity between Verizon’s earlier speed and availability scores).

Time spent on Verizon’s 5G shot up to 29.6% in Q4 and pushed AT&T, which also saw improvements in the category, to fourth place at 26%.

“The dramatic increase in Verizon’s 5G Time Spent is the second half of the puzzle of the drop in performance as more users over a larger footprint are now accessing the network,” the Ookla report stated.

Meanwhile, speeds on AT&T’s  5G network, which uses lower band spectrum, jumped more than 10 Mbps over the past three months to 75.59 Mbps. 

T-Mobile nabbed second place for speed and continued its reign as carrier with most time spent on 5G (including for Sprint users roaming on the T-Mobile network).

 T-Mobile has been touting its ‘Ultra Capacity 5G’ service where mid-band 2.5 GHz spectrum is deployed along with millimeter wave, covering 106 million people. The operator’s nationwide 5G network using 600 MHz spectrum covers 280 million people.

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In Q4 Speedtest users with a 5G-capable device connected to T-Mobile’s 5G network about 64% the time, and Sprint users were at 59%. That’s an increase from 54.4% and 47.6% in Q3, respectively.

U.S. carriers have all taken different approaches to 5G, including different spectrum bands with different flavors of low-, mid- and high-band 5G.

Dan Hays, US TMT Corporate Strategy Leader at PwC’s Strategy& consulting practice believes one challenge still facing the industry in significantly growing 5G penetration is the customer experience.

“Coverage continues to be uneven and performance is not consistent,” he told Fierce.

5G expanded in 2020, with 5G covering three quarters of the U.S. population as of January 1, 2021 and device penetration at 8%, according to a new PwC Mobile Index. That’s expected to grow to 80% and 12% by July, respectively.

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“The industry has a significant opportunity to improve customer experience and also educate people on what they should be expecting from 5G,” Hays said. He acknowledged that 5G marketing is currently well ahead of 5G service at this point.

“The [5G] experience will improve in terms of coverage as the networks get built out,” he said. “And spectrum deployment is certainly a key requirement but is unlikely to change things over night.”

Based on mid-band auctions over the past year, Hays noted the industry is still likely 2 to 3 years out from when a sizable amount of that spectrum is fully deployed.

Just last week the first phase of the FCC’s C-band auction for key mid-band spectrum licenses in the 3.7 GHz band wrapped up with more than $80 billion in gross proceeds. All three nationwide carriers participated but the question still remains of who came away with what.