Dueling reports show major increase in U.S. wireless network speeds

According to two separate reports released today, Americans are enjoying significantly faster LTE networks than they were a year ago. That’s noteworthy considering U.S. wireless network operators widely began offering unlimited data plans—the kind that encourage heavy wireless network usage—beginning early last year.

The two reports—one from OpenSignal and the other from Speedtest operator Ookla—both found that U.S. operators are providing much faster upload and download speeds than they were a year ago. For example, Ookla said that mean download speeds over mobile networks in the United States increased 20.4% during the first quarter of last year compared with the first quarter of this year, and it pegged the nation’s mean download speed at 27.33 Mbps and the upload speed at 8.63 Mbps.

OpenSignal reported similar findings, pointing to increases in the speeds of T-Mobile and Verizon specifically. “Both operators saw significant jumps in their LTE speed scores in the last six months. T-Mobile users saw their average 4G download connection increase more than 2 Mbps to 21.6 Mbps since our last report, while Verizon users experienced a nearly 3 Mbps boost to bring their average LTE download speed to 20.6 Mbps,” OpenSignal wrote in its report. “Seen in the context of a full year, their speed gains are even more telling. T-Mobile's measured LTE download speeds have increased 24% in just 12 months, while Verizon's have jumped a whopping 38%.”

Ookla said its figures are based on data from 12 million network tests across almost 3 million devices during the first half of this year, while OpenSignal said its data was derived from almost 400,000 devices running slightly more than 8 billion measurements between March 16 and June 13. Both companies obtain network data from apps installed on Americans’ smartphones.

The companies’ findings are likely a relief to wireless network managers tasked with deploying new spectrum and network technologies to keep pace with Americans’ demands for mobile data. Indeed, all of the nation’s wireless network operators have been leveraging various strategies to improve their network coverage and speed: T-Mobile, for example, has been deploying new operations in the 700 MHz and 600 MHz bands, while concurrently leveraging unlicensed spectrum via LAA technology. Similarly, Verizon has been deploying network technologies like carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO and 256 QAM to speed its services.

The data from Ookla and OpenSignal is even more noteworthy considering wireless operators like Verizon and AT&T moved to unlimited data offerings at the beginning of last year. That action raised concerns that their networks wouldn’t be able to keep pace with the increased network usage driven by unlimited plans. However, they appear to have addressed those concerns, particularly in light of a new Cowen and Company survey that found that fully 56.3% of postpaid customers today subscribe to unlimited data plans, up from just 20.3% three years ago.

While Ookla and OpenSignal largely concur on the upward trend in LTE speeds, they differ on exactly which carriers are providing the best services. Ookla gave T-Mobile the top award with a “speed score” of 27.86—the firm said its “speed score” collects download and upload data across carriers’ networks.

Meantime, OpenSignal gave T-Mobile the top award in categories including fastest download and upload speeds, but it gave AT&T top marks for latency and Verizon and T-Mobile top awards for 4G availability.

“Verizon has caught up to T-Mobile in our 4G availability metrics,” OpenSignal wrote in its report. “The two weren't just statistically tied, their scores were numerically tied. Our T-Mobile and Verizon users on average were able to find an LTE signal 93.7% of the time.”

OpenSignal, Ookla, P3, Strategy Analytics’ OppOptix operation, Tutela and others track users’ network speeds via apps installed on consumers’ phones. As noted by Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner, such crowdsourced data is one of three different ways—the other two are drive testing and surveys—that third parties can use to assess the performance of wireless networks.

As Entner noted, each of the different measurement methods offer pros and cons. On crowdsourced data specifically, Entner wrote that it’s useful because it is derived from real-world users in real-life situations “but that is also its central issue,” he noted. “Such tests are not repeatable or verifiable and anomalies in the data shake my faith in them.”

Not surprisingly, operators often seek to play up portions of reports from the likes of OpenSignal and Ookla that put them ahead of competitors, or play up a message they’re pushing. For example, Verizon issued a statement from its VP of network operations, Mike Haberman, ahead of the release of Ookla’s report. Haberman pointed out that Verizon’s network was the fastest in nearly half of the 100 cities Ookla examined.

Separately, Sprint in a statement on the results said "In this latest report Sprint significantly improved its downloads speeds and is by far the most improved carrier year-over-year. We are closing the gap on AT&T and in some markets Sprint customers are experiencing faster download speeds than those on any other carrier."

Article updated July 20 to correct information on the number of measurements tracked by OpenSignal.