Report: T-Mobile's HSPA+ almost as fast as AT&T's LTE

RootMetrics tested the network speeds of the nation's top wireless carriers. Click here for a larger version of this chart.

Among the six largest U.S. carriers, Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) remains the carrier providing the fastest--and most consistently speedy--mobile data network, thanks in large part to its extensive LTE network, according to a new report from wireless testing company RootMetrics.

To obtain its findings, RootMetrics said it visited 75 markets, tested coverage across nearly 100,000 miles within those cities, and performed almost 500,000 drive and indoor data tests using off-the-shelf smartphones. The company tested whatever network was available from the carriers (LTE, CDMA or HSPA) and averaged the results.

The report found that Verizon's data network (combined LTE and CDMA EV-DO) on average supported downlink speeds of 13 Mbps and uplink speeds of 7 Mbps. AT&T Mobility's (NYSE:T) network (HSPA+21 and LTE) produced average downlink speeds of 7 Mbps, while T-Mobile USA's HSPA+ 42 network helped it keep pace with AT&T, producing average downlink speeds of a little more than 5 Mbps.

Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) CDMA network and MetroPCS' (NYSE:PCS) combined CDMA and LTE network both produced average downlink speeds of around 2 Mbps. However, the report didn't include Sprint's nascent LTE network, which it launched in July. Sprint says its LTE network produces average downlink speeds of 6-8 Mbps. Cricket provider Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP) scored the lowest in average downlink speeds, recording 0.6 Mbps, and also placed last in average upload speeds, offering a speed of only 0.4 Mbps. 

Many factors contribute to real-world network speeds, including traffic on a particular cell site and the user's distance from the site. But perhaps the most important factor is the amount of spectrum a carrier devotes to its network. For example, Verizon's 700 MHz LTE network sports a 10x10 MHz configuration nationwide.

RootMetrics also looked at the consistency of carriers' data speeds. The firm said Verizon's network supported speeds of 5 Mbps or higher 77.4 percent of the time (including 15 Mbps or higher 37.9 percent of the time). AT&T supported speeds above 5 Mbps 48.1 percent of the time; T-Mobile hit that mark 46.7 percent of the time, and Sprint produced speeds of 5 Mbps or greater 17.3 percent of the time. The Sprint speeds that measured above the 5 Mbps threshold came from Clearwire's (NASDAQ:CLWR) mobile WiMAX network, which Sprint resells. 

Interestingly, AT&T produced speeds of 15 Mbps or greater 13 percent of the time, while T-Mobile did so 6.2 percent of the time.

"Beyond Verizon, things get more interesting, especially given T-Mobile's strong performance without the availability of LTE," RootMetrics' Patrick Linder wrote in a company blog post. "Their HSPA+42 network proved a major story of our first-half testing. Though AT&T edged ahead of T-Mobile, the distance between the carriers was small. In fact, despite AT&T's rollout of LTE, they were often closer to T-Mobile than to Verizon."

AT&T's LTE network covers more than 75 million POPs, and the carrier plans to expand that to 150 million POPs by year-end. T-Mobile's HSPA+42 network covers 184 million POPs, and the carrier is planning to deploy LTE on its 1700 MHz AWS spectrum next year. Verizon's LTE network currently covers 75 percent of the U.S. population, around 235 million POPs, and the carrier plans to hit 260 million POPs by year-end. Sprint Nextel just deployed its LTE network in July but plans to cover 123 million POPs by the end of the year. 

However, the carriers' speedy networks may not matter to many consumers, according to new data from ABI Research and cited by TownHall Research. According to ABI Research, during the first quarter of 2012 only 5.6 percent of U.S. subscribers were on a 4G network. For all of 2011, ABI found that 2G networks carried 22 percent of users' data traffic while 4G networks carried only 4.2 percent. ABI forecasts that 2G networks will continue to carry more data traffic than 4G networks until 2014--the firm said 4G networks won't carry a majority of users' data traffic until 2017.

This lag is largely due to the market's relatively slow transition to LTE. Sprint recently switched on its LTE network, and T-Mobile doesn't plan to do so until next year. And after turning on their LTE networks, carriers must then convince users to purchase devices that support those new networks.

RootMetrics' survey is notable in light of new plans by the FCC to test and record the real-world speeds of wireless carriers' mobile data networks, much in the same way the FCC has already tested the nation's wired networks. 

For more:
- see this report

Related Articles:
FCC to measure mobile broadband performance
Survey: 46% of mobile customers experience slow mobile data speeds
Report: LTE subscribers use more data in over-the-top content apps
T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 smartphone users guzzle 1.3 GB per month
Fresh study says Verizon beats AT&T in overall data speed
Study: AT&T, T-Mobile top network speed tests
Verizon challenges other carriers' network speeds in '4G throw down'