AT&T’s controversial 5G E network is back in the news. First quarter 2019 wireless speed tests from Ookla show AT&T’s network has average download speeds that are faster than rivals T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon, according to an AT&T press release.
Ookla’s mobile speed tests indicate AT&T’s network averaged 34.65 Mbps. T-Mobile’s network averaged 34.11 Mbps Mbps, Verizon’s network averaged 33.07 Mbps, while Sprint's network averaged 31.21 Mbps. AT&T said those results indicate its network speeds have increased 15% during the first three months of 2019. It also claimed speeds in 5G E areas are up to twice as fast as AT&T’s standard LTE service on average.
“This is further proof that our wireless network strategy and build are benefiting our customers in ways that other carriers cannot match,” said Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and CTO, in a statement.
At first glance, the results seem to stand in contrast to a recent Opensignal study, which found that AT&T’s 5G E customers experience network speeds that are a bit slower than other 4G LTE Advanced Pro networks, undercutting AT&T’s marketing around 5G E. AT&T’s 5G E-branded network is actually a 4G LTE Advanced network, which AT&T has described as its “first step” on the road to 5G.
Opensignal’s recent study on AT&T’s 5G E, which was widely reported in the media, seemed to differ from Ookla’s numbers. Its analysis shows that overall, 5G E customers received speeds that were in line with customers using the same phones on other carriers’ 4G LTE Advanced networks.
“We’ve seen lots of improvements in the AT&T network,” said Opensignal CEO Brendan Gill, in an interview with FierceWireless. “They’ve clearly been rolling out the underlying technology behind 5G E—the LTE Advanced Pro technology—they’ve been making lots of investments in it. They’ve also been rolling out a whole load of new spectrum.”
The differences in results between the Opensignal report and the Ookla report could be chalked up to different methodologies. AT&T’s 5G E logo, which showed up on some customer’s phones also played into the different results. As part its 5G marketing, AT&T pushed a software update to some customer’s smartphones, changing an icon from “4G” to “5G E.”
Opensignal’s data set, for example, looked at wireless customers who had 5G E-capable phones, but it didn’t differentiate between speeds experienced on AT&T’s 5G E (4G LTE Advanced Pro) network versus its regular 4G network.
“Our methodology was to take all the devices that AT&T lists as 5G E devices and just look at the experience of those devices,” Gill said, adding that the study measured what the overall average speed was for those customers. “It takes into account how frequently you can actually get 5G E, and when you’re actually on the regular 4G. We did that for a reason, specifically because we think the holistic experience that those devices get is actually the most relevant.”
Gill reiterated that the study showed the speeds among the top four carriers as being in line with one another. “In reality, it’s very, very close, both for the 5G E devices and for the rest of the devices,” he said. “In the overall speeds, we weren’t seeing big differences between these networks beyond fractions of a percent.”
The Ookla data, on the other hand, documented increases in speeds measured through speed test results, with a particular jump in faster speed test results coming from AT&T iOS users after the 5G E icon update. Because the software update in question only changed the network icon for AT&T customers, it’s safe to assume the network speed improvements were well underway before the icon update, but customers hadn’t thought to check their speeds until the icon changed to 5G E.
Adriane Blum, head of communications at Ookla, said the results were based on aggregated data from consumer-initiated speed tests on mobile networks. The data set spans 5.5 million tests taken by over 1.5 million unique devices during the three-month period.
“What we saw in the data this quarter was a really big increase in faster tests after the rollout of iOS 12.2. That happened at the end of the quarter,” Blum told FierceWireless in an interview, referring to the Apple iOS update that changed the network icon for AT&T customers from 4G to 5G E.
Blum noted that 70% of AT&T devices taking the speed test are iOS smartphone users, and that the network icon change only became available to iOS users at the end of the quarter.
“When AT&T rolled out this 5G E marketing designator, we saw a lot of people on the newer iPhone models getting faster than average speeds than other people on the network, and they were testing it suddenly because they saw 5G in the label. We saw a big spike in tests in the quarter from those models,” she said.