The real world: Comparing 3G/4G speeds

Mike DanoT-Mobile USA this week laid down the gauntlet by declaring its HSPA+ network will provide "4G speeds." While that's debatable (I realize the International Telecommunication Union has a definition for 4G, but no carrier abides by that definition in its marketing, and for all practical purposes it's irrelevant), T-Mobile's assertion certainly serves as a competitive wake-up call to the rest of the nation's Tier 1 carriers.

Today's EVDO networks from Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and Sprint Nextel (NASDAQ:S) and WCDMA/HSPA networks from AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) and T-Mobile provide real-world speeds of around 500 Kbps to around 1 Mbps on good days. But carriers' network upgrades set to roll out throughout the rest of this year should provide significantly faster speeds. How do those speeds compare?

Carrier

Real-world download speeds

Real-world upload speeds

People covered by the end of 2010

Verizon (LTE)

5-12 Mbps

2-5 Mbps

100 million

AT&T (HSPA+)

7 Mbps

?

250 million

T-Mobile (HSPA+)

3.12 Mbps - 8.26 Mbps

1.26 Mbps - 2.5 Mbps

185 million

Sprint (WiMAX,
via Clearwire)

3-6 Mbps

500 Kbps

120 million

Now, make no mistake, this chart needs a lot of explaining. First, and most importantly, real-world speeds are notoriously difficult to pin down, and vary wildly based on factors including distance from cell site, general load on the network, backhaul and a host of other factors. Further, it's worth pointing out that the speed numbers for each carrier have plenty of caveats:

  • For Verizon, the carrier hasn't yet launched commercial LTE services, and speeds promised before launch are often much different than those provided by a real, working network. Further, the numbers cited above were provided in March, and could change by the time the network launches in the fourth quarter. Indeed, a recent Verizon promotional video shows users accessing speeds of around 8 Mbps on the downlink and 2 Mbps on the uplink.
  • For AT&T, the carrier only recently announced it would upgrade to HSPA+ and so far has no commercial HSPA+ services. When questioned, the carrier didn't immediately provide expected real-world HSPA+ speeds, but AT&T Operations CEO John Stankey recently set a ballpark of 7 Mbps on the downstream. Of course, for AT&T, HSPA+ is only a stepping stone to its planned LTE rollout next year.
  • For T-Mobile, the carrier is in the midst of rolling out HSPA+ and has a number of markets online. A carrier spokeswoman said, "With peak download speeds demonstrated on the T-Mobile webConnect Rocket laptop stick between 5 to 8 Mbps (as noted in recent reviews), T-Mobile's HSPA+ service is outperforming competing wireless networks," and declined to elaborate. However, she provided links to a number of published speed tests from the likes of PCMag.com, jkOnTheRun, the Financial Times and others.
  • As for Sprint, which is relying on Clearwire's mobile WiMAX rollout, the carrier is promoting real-world speeds on its website, albeit in tiny text at the bottom. Clearwire does note that users can see bursts of 10 Mbps, and Sprint advertises its upload speeds as "up to a 1 Mbps cap."

So what do these numbers mean? Well, for starters I think they show that all of the nation's Tier 1 carriers should have solid, high-speed mobile broadband offerings in place for the critical fourth-quarter holiday shopping season. Of course, fast networks are just one of a huge range of factors that play into success, so there's no telling how things will shake out next year and beyond. --Mike

Aritcle modified May 27 to include details on Sprint's upload speeds.

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