RootMetrics: Verizon edges out AT&T, Sprint stays in No. 3 spot thanks to improved reliability

Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) stayed slightly ahead of AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) in terms of overall network performance, while Sprint (NYSE: S) maintained its lead over T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) in overall performance  thanks to improvements in mobile data performance and speeds as well as call and texting reliability, according to network testing firm RootMetrics.

The latest report from RootMetrics looks at how the Tier 1 carriers performed in the first half of 2015. Some carriers, especially Verizon and Sprint of late, have used RootMetrics' reports to highlight their network strengths and improvements.

On the surface, little changed in the overall rankings from when RootMetrics released its last bi-annual national report in February, as the carriers maintained their overall national performance rankings. However, Julie Dey, vice president of marketing at RootMetrics, said that the carriers are focusing on improving their networks in highly-populated metro areas and that came through in the carriers' metro-based awards, since RootMetrics measures performance across all 50 states and in the top 125 U.S. metro areas.   

In terms of overall national performance, Verizon came in first with a weighted score of 94.5 (on a scale of 100), AT&T came in second at 91.8, Sprint finished third at 87.5 and T-Mobile finished fourth with a score of 82.0.

RootMetrics found that Verizon came in first in overall national performance for the first half of 2015.

RootMetrics' report looks at overall performance, network reliability, network speed, data performance, call performance and texting performance. Verizon won in five of the six categories while AT&T edged out Verizon in texting performance.

However, in terms of the carriers' performance in the metro areas, AT&T was actually the biggest winner and showed the most improvement from the second half of 2014. Across the six categories in 125 metro areas, AT&T nabbed a total of 441 first-place awards or ties for first place, compared to 388 in the second half of 2014, for a gain of 53. Sprint garnered 180 awards, a gain of 45. T-Mobile won 221, up 20 from the last report. Verizon actually lost metro awards, and had 512, down 25 from 538 in the last report. However, RootMetrics said the majority of Verizon's award decline was in the text category, the only category in which Verizon didn't win the most RootScore Awards in metro testing.

Dey said that did not indicate that Verizon's performance is falling and, indeed, it had far more awards than any other carrier. She said that RootMetrics is seeing fewer ties and a greater disparity in performance on some metrics. Dey said that "for Verizon, consistency is absolutely the story" and that the company has been able to maintain a strong network in more places around the country than any other carrier. Verizon also saw an improvement in data speeds, Dey noted. In the first half of 2015, the number of markets where Verizon produced median download speeds of 10-20 Mbps fell to 70 markets from 82 in the last report, but the number of markets where Verizon produced median downlink speeds of 20 Mbps or more grew to 51 from 40.

In an interview with FierceWireless, Mike Haberman, Verizon's vice president of network support, said that the carrier is maintaining its network edge through the deployment of its 20x20 MHz AWS-1 spectrum nationwide, as well as targeted refarming of its 1900 MHz PCS spectrum in a handful of major markets, including New York City. He also said that Verizon will continue to densify its network through the deployment of small cells, as well as remote radios heads, distributed antenna systems, and in-building solutions, all of which can take pressure off its macro sites. "The densification, if it's done the right way, can yield nice results for the customer," Haberman said, adding that it's important to avoid interference.

Although Haberman said Verizon cares about delivering fast speeds, Verizon is "still designing to the standard of 5-12 Mbps" for downlink speeds consistently across its LTE network. He said that when customers use an application and get 18.5 Mbps speeds compared to 19 Mbps, there is not an appreciable difference.

Speaking of speeds, RootMetrics found that AT&T's median download speeds were fast and consistent with the speeds it found in the second half of 2014. AT&T reached the 10-20 Mbps median range in 79 markets once again, while recording median download speeds faster than 20 Mbps in 11 markets, down from 14 last time. "Though AT&T has shown improved -- and fast -- speed results, it's worth noting that AT&T's topline speeds (those exceeding 20 Mbps) weren't found in nearly as many markets as those of T-Mobile or Verizon," RootMetrics said.

Sprint, meanwhile, saw significant improvement in call reliability as well as data reliability. RootMetrics uses what it calls "a high bar" in its reliability testing and look for networks to offer at least a 97 percent success rate in its web/app testing as a mark of excellent data reliability. Sprint "surpassed our 97 percent threshold of excellence for connecting to the network in 106 metros, a sizable leap from 77 in the previous test period. Perhaps more importantly for Sprint subscribers, Sprint exceeded our 97 percent threshold of excellence for staying connected in 119 markets, an increase from 108 in second-half testing."

Owing to its deployment of its 2.5 GHz spectrum, which can lead to faster speeds, Sprint won four network speed awards, compared with zero in the last report, and one data speed award, compared with none before. Still, in terms of network speed and data performance, Sprint is still in last place. "They have improved but they still have quite a ways to go," Dey said.

In a company blog post, Sprint CTO John Saw noted that although Sprint is pleased with its improved performance, it has more work to do. "A key strategy for improving our network is to densify and increase our number of cell sites across our 2.5 GHz, 1.9 GHz and 800 MHz spectrum bands," he said. "This will include adding thousands of new macro sites to expand coverage, and it will include a continued expansion of our 2.5 GHz LTE footprint. As we continue to improve on our LTE coverage with techniques like carrier aggregation and beamforming, our customers in metro markets will soon see significantly improved data speeds and performance." 

T-Mobile has fast network speeds, but RootMetrics thinks its reliability is not up to snuff. T-Mobile recorded median download speeds of 20 Mbps or faster in 45 out of the 125 markets, a close second to Verizon's total of 51. For perspective, AT&T reached speeds exceeding 20 Mbps in 11 markets and Sprint did so in none. T-Mobile's data reliability improved and it surpassed the 97 percent "threshold of excellence for making a connection" in 62 markets, a up from 43 in the previous test period. However, T-Mobile's blocked call rates "weren't quite as strong as what we saw from the other three networks," RootMetrics said.

One big caveat to all of this is that RootMetrics tested each network using a Samsung Galaxy S5. Dey said RootMetrics went to the carriers at the start of the test period to find the device that would provide the best performance on each network. The phone RootMetrics uses, Dey said, needs to provide reliable connections across all carriers, and RootMetrics went with the S5, which does not support Band 12 LTE for T-Mobile's 700 MHz spectrum, which means the testing firm may not have captured the coverage gains T-Mobile is making using that spectrum. However, the tests also did not include devices that could support Sprint's 2x20 2.5 GHz carrier aggregation, so T-Mobile was not the only carrier affected by device choice.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere took issue with RootMetrics' methodology, saying on Twitter that RootMetrics' drive tests are "not an accurate network study," and that T-Mobile trusts crowd-sourced information with real customer data. He also said that RootMetrics "can't keep up with how fast" T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray and his team are improving T-Mobile's network. And, Legere noted that "we now have 700 MHz in over 135 markets - that wasn't even included on their cute little road trip."

For more:
- see this RootMetrics report
- see this Sprint blog post 
- see this John Legere Twitter page 

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