Fresh study says Verizon beats AT&T in overall data speed

AT&T Mobility's (NYSE:T) LTE network is fast, but overall data speeds on the company's mobile networks are not quick enough to dethrone Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) as the data king, according to a new report from wireless testing company RootMetrics.

Carrier Data performance

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"While AT&T's transition to LTE is making waves, Verizon continues to dominate, T-Mobile is closer to AT&T than you might expect [and] Sprint is languishing, said the company, referring to results from its latest quarterly assessment of U.S. operator mobile data performance.

The first-quarter 2012 report includes results from tests of the national operators' networks in 42 total markets. This latest version of RootMetrics' report also examines the performances of mobile data networks operated by regional operators Leap Wireless International (NASDAQ:LEAP) and MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) for the first time.

According to RootMetrics, AT&T offers faster LTE speeds than Verizon. "If you're simply comparing average download speeds on LTE, AT&T had the clear advantage. AT&T proved faster than Verizon for LTE average download speed in 11 markets, Verizon recorded faster LTE average speeds in two markets, and the carriers statistically tied in two markets. Combining our test results from all 15 markets, AT&T's LTE service averaged a download speed of 17.4 Mbps, while Verizon averaged 15.2 Mbps," said the company.

However, upon closer examination, RootMetrics said its study showed Verizon leads AT&T by a wide margin in overall mobile data performance. AT&T's marketing touts its HSPA backup service to LTE as providing a "smoother, more consistent 4G experience overall" when LTE is unavailable, while Verizon is saddled with an older CDMA EV-DO network to fill in its LTE coverage gaps. "Even with this difference in backup technologies, Verizon still bested AT&T's speed performance," said RootMetrics.

RootMetrics ranked networks in individual markets based on whether they could maintain certain thresholds of service. These were:

  • Upper Threshold: Could a carrier deliver download speeds above 3 Mbps in at least 70 percent of tests for a given market?
  • Lower Threshold: Would a carrier dip below download speeds of 1.5 Mbps in at least 60 percent of tests for a given market?
  • Middle Path: The percentage of markets in which a carrier neither exceeded the upper threshold nor fell below the lower threshold.

"When you compare the two carriers head-to-head and look at how often within each market they recorded speeds below 1.5 Mbps, Verizon outperformed AT&T. Though neither carrier ever crossed the Lower Threshold more than 60 percent for any market, Verizon recorded a lower percentage of speeds below 1.5 Mbps in 32 out of the 42 cities tested. In other words, our market-by-market tests found both a greater consistency of service above 3 Mbps and also a lower likelihood of falling below 1.5 Mbps with Verizon," said the company.

The company said Verizon surpassed the Upper Threshold in 36 out of 42 markets, while AT&T only surpassed the benchmark in 18 out of 42 markets. "Verizon also never fell below the Lower Threshold in any city, leaving 14 percent of their markets as Middle Path markets," said RootMetrics.

RootMetrics said T-Mobile's HSPA +42 network firmly places the operator in the top tier of U.S. mobile operators in terms of data performance. While AT&T exceeded the Upper Threshold in 18 markets, T-Mobile did so in 13 markets and only fell below the Lower Threshold in a single market. "With the rest of their cities falling into Middle Path territory, T-Mobile's HSPA+42 network might present an interesting choice for those looking for an alternative to AT&T or Verizon," said RootMetrics.

The company said Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) is not keeping pace with other national operators in data performance, even in markets where it offers WiMAX. Noting that Sprint has promised a mid-2012 launch of LTE, RootMetrics said, "Their service seems to be languishing as they adopt a policy of ‘better LTE than never' and wait for upgrades to be completed later in the year."

RootMetrics also tested networks operated by regional operators, assessing MetroPCS in 17 markets and Leap's Cricket brand in 19.

Sprint and MetroPCS had somewhat comparable performances with 55 percent of Sprint's markets falling beneath the Lower Threshold and 59 percent of MetroPCS' markets falling below that benchmark. Neither carrier ever exceeded the Upper Threshold, and both were close in the percentage of Middle Path markets they each recorded.

RootMetrics said it experienced much more dismal results with Cricket, which "recorded the lowest speeds in our tests, falling into the low speed bucket in every market we tested."

In a separate study recently conducted by PCWorld, T-Mobile USA's HSPA +21 network and AT&T's LTE network were dubbed the nation's fastest "3G" and "4G" networks, respectively, among Tier 1 U.S. carriers. According to that report, AT&T's LTE network provided the best downlink speeds among 4G networks, topping out at an average of 9.12 Mbps. That bested Verizon Wireless' LTE network, which had average downlink speeds of 7.35 Mbps. However, Verizon's LTE network beat AT&T's in uplink speeds, with an average uplink speed of 5.85 Mbps compared with AT&T's 4.91 Mbps.

For more:
- see this RootMetrics Web page

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