RootMetrics: Sprint makes dramatic jump in LTE coverage in Q3, with T-Mobile not far behind

Wireless carriers continue to boast about the progress they are making in rolling out their nationwide LTE networks. And therein lies a bit of confusion. The covered population targets the carriers announce are on a nationwide basis, and while carriers have been disclosing the names of markets they have deployed LTE service in, it's often difficult to know just how much different parts of the country are covered by LTE service by each carrier (unless you're living there, of course).

Thanks to an exclusive partnership between FierceWireless and network testing firm RootMetrics, readers will be able to see how the carriers are progressing in terms of network deployments by technology on a region-by-region basis. RootMetrics conducted extensive testing across the country both in the first half of 2014 and in the third quarter to gauge how the four Tier 1 carriers were stacking up in terms of network deployments.

The data makes it possible to check how actual network testing across the country is measuring up against carriers' claims. For example, AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) said in September that it hit its goal of reaching 300 million covered POPs with LTE, several months ahead of its target. The company has declared its LTE buildout essentially complete. According to RootMetrics, in the third quarter, averaged across the eight regions it surveyed, the firm found AT&T LTE coverage in 97.26 percent of its tests, making AT&T's claim that it essentially has built out LTE to its entire footprint more plausible (the firm found 3G coverage on AT&T's network in 2.52 percent of its tests on average).

Sprint (NYSE: S) said at the end of the third quarter its 1900 MHz LTE network now covers a total of 260 million people across 500 U.S. cities (up from 254 million POPs at the end of the second quarter). The company also said it is nearing its goal of covering 100 million people with its 2.5 GHz LTE network; the carrier said it currently covers 92 million people with its 2.5 GHz LTE network. As for Sprint's 800 MHz LTE buildout, the carrier said it now covers 50 percent of its total LTE footprint with 800 MHz LTE and will complete its 800 MHz LTE buildout next year.

RootMetrics' data showed significant improvement in Sprint's LTE network coverage from the first half to the third quarter across all regions. Most dramatically, in the Rocky Mountain region Sprint's LTE network showed up in just 45.65 percent of tests in the first half, but that figure nearly doubled to 90.68 percent in the third quarter.

In the Plains region, Sprint's LTE network showed up in just 61.65 percent of tests, but that number shot up 94.12 percent in the third quarter. In the Great Lakes region, Sprint's LTE network s 73.64 percent of tests in the first half, but that figure increased to 86.32 percent in the third quarter. The figures for Sprint LTE coverage shot up  in all regions to varying degrees as the year progressed: in the Mid-Atlantic (61.10 percent increasing to 77.55 percent); New England (67.37 percent to 71.84 percent); Southeast (56.28 percent jumping to 86.18 percent); Southwest (59.11 percent to 81.05 percent); and the West (44.38 percent to 64.84 percent).

On average, across ell eight regions, in the third quarter Sprint's LTE network made up 81.57 percent of tests and its 3G network made up 17.82 percent of all tests, according to RootMetrics. That's comapres to averages of 58.65 percent of Sprint tests on LTE in the first half and 38.57 percent on 3G in the firsthalf.

T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) said at the end of the third quarter that it hit its year-end goal of covering 250 million POPs with LTE several months early, and said the company is now on track to cover 260 million POPs with LTE by the end of 2014. T-Mobile's test results mirror that increase.

According to RootMetrics, T-Mobile saw significant increases in LTE coverage in its test in three regions. The results were most dramatic in the West, with T-Mobile going from 74.22 percent of its tests on LTE in the first half up to 92.73 percent in the third quarter. In New England, T-Mobile went from having 66.98 percent of tests being on LTE in the first half to 82.97 percent in the third quarter. In the Southeast, T-Mobile's LTE coverage jumped from 79.21 percent of tests in the first half to 90.15 percent in the third quarter. Nationally, averaged across all eight regions, T-Mobile's LTE network showed up in 87.43 percent of tests.

Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), which says its LTE network covers 306 million POPs, and has long claimed to have the most LTE coverage of any U.S. carrier, can feel pretty good about those claims. Nationally, averaged across all eight regions, Verizon's LTE network came through in 98.96 percent of tests. In fact, according to RootMetrics, the only region where Verizon's LTE network was present less than 99 percent of the time was in New England, where it showed up in 96.58 percent of tests (still the most of any carrier).

There are some caveats and information readers should know about the data. RootMetrics is comparing network proliferation in two time periods--the first half of 2014 and the third quarter of 2014. However, not all 125 U.S. metro areas RootMetrics surveys are included in the third-quarter data; the third-quarter numbers include 52 U.S. metro areas, while the first-half figures include all 125 metro areas. That is simply because in the third quarter RootMetrics did not collect survey data for all of the 125 metro areas. The firm says it will be able to include more when collects the data again in the fourth quarter.

Additionally, the company is not observing much 2G in its testing much anymore. "Unknown" test results in the table and data refers to tests that were completed in under five seconds, which means RootMetrics was unable to determine the network type that the phone was connected to.

    3rd Quarter 2014
Region Carrier 2G 3G LTE Unknown
Great Lakes AT&T 0.00% 1.31% 98.66% 0.03%
  Sprint 0.05% 13.29% 86.32% 0.34%
  T-Mobile 0.01% 17.47% 81.86% 0.66%
  Verizon 0.04% 0.62% 99.20% 0.14%
Mid-Atlantic AT&T 0.00% 2.59% 97.19% 0.22%
  Sprint 0.33% 21.59% 77.55% 0.53%
  T-Mobile 0.27% 14.49% 83.61% 1.63%
  Verizon 0.02% 0.71% 99.16% 0.10%
New England AT&T 0.01% 4.98% 94.29% 0.73%
  Sprint 0.39% 27.34% 71.84% 0.43%
  T-Mobile 0.33% 14.54% 82.97% 2.16%
  Verizon 0.11% 3.12% 96.58% 0.19%
Plains AT&T 0.00% 1.19% 98.74% 0.07%
  Sprint 0.02% 5.53% 94.12% 0.32%
  T-Mobile 0.00% 7.38% 87.54% 5.08%
  Verizon 0.00% 0.44% 99.45% 0.10%
Rocky Mountains AT&T 0.01% 3.76% 96.03% 0.20%
  Sprint 0.09% 8.92% 90.68% 0.31%
  T-Mobile 0.00% 11.56% 88.21% 0.23%
  Verizon 0.00% 0.68% 99.27% 0.05%
Southeast AT&T 0.00% 1.14% 98.74% 0.12%
  Sprint 0.14% 13.40% 86.18% 0.28%
  T-Mobile 0.00% 9.00% 90.15% 0.84%
  Verizon 0.01% 0.76% 99.14% 0.10%
Southwest AT&T 0.00% 1.13% 98.79% 0.08%
  Sprint 0.08% 18.42% 81.05% 0.45%
  T-Mobile 0.00% 6.99% 92.33% 0.68%
  Verizon 0.00% 0.30% 99.69% 0.01%
West AT&T 0.00% 4.07% 95.66% 0.26%
  Sprint 0.47% 34.04% 64.84% 0.66%
  T-Mobile 0.07% 6.63% 92.73% 0.56%
  Verizon 0.05% 0.60% 99.19% 0.16%

For a larger version of this table, which includes data from the first half of this year, click here for the PDF.

For a state-by state breakdown, this is how RootMetrics defines each region:

  • New England: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont
  • Mid-Atlantic: Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania
  • Great Lakes: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin
  • Plains: Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota
  • Southeast: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia
  • Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas
  • Rocky Mountain: Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming
  • West: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington
RootMetrics: Sprint makes dramatic jump in LTE coverage in Q3, with T-Mobile not far behind