Verizon may be feeling the PR heat from T-Mobile, but the 2019 network quality report from Tutela shows it provided customers with the best mobile network experience in the U.S., as measured using the crowd sourcing firm’s “Excellent Consistent Quality” metric.
Of course, operators can usually find something they like and don’t like in benchmarking reports. Tutela’s latest report shows T-Mobile finished as runner-up for both Excellent and Core Consistent Quality, as well as taking the crown for the fastest upload speed.
AT&T came out on top for Core Consistent Quality, which is Tutela’s metric for routine use cases such as social media image sharing or standard definition (SD) video streaming. The gap isn’t huge, but it’s seeing AT&T’s network providing the best when it comes to that kind of connection, according to Chris Mills, head of Industry Analysis at Tutela.
T-Mobile had the highest median upload throughput while Verizon and Sprint demonstrated the best latency.
Changes in spectrum usage
The report said the change in spectrum utilization over the past year is notable. Both T-Mobile and AT&T have embarked on ambitious deployments of new spectrum—T-Mobile with the 600 MHz spectrum it acquired through the incentive auction and AT&T with the 700 MHz spectrum it got as part of FirstNet.
Both are on aggressive time tables but the speed at which AT&T rolled out its low band is impressive, Mills said in an interview. AT&T gets the advantage of more phones being out in the market that will support that band, versus the 600 MHz that T-Mobile is rolling out that requires TV stations to move out before it can take it over. It’s only the latest generations (last year and this year) of iPhones that support the 600 MHz band. If a consumer hasn’t bought a new phone in the last two years, the carrier nor the customer will see the benefit from that newer spectrum.
The use of the different spectrum bands in the U.S. is also worth noting. AT&T’s service taps into everything from 700 MHz and 850 MHz to 1700 MHz and 1900 MHz, whereas about 85% of data traffic on Sprint goes over 2.5 GHz and 1.9 GHz spectrum, so it’s more reliant on bands that are in the higher range.
“That’s probably the biggest legacy difference that we still see between AT&T and Verizon versus Sprint and T-Mobile,” the latter two leaning much more heavily on high band spectrum. “So you’ve always got that kind of handicap especially when you’re looking at coverage in rural areas or deep inside buildings and things where the propagation of low band spectrum gives AT&T and Verizon a built-in advantage.” For AT&T, that’s getting even more pronounced with the rollout of its 700 MHz, so-called “beach-front” spectrum.
T-Mobile’s investment in 600 MHz is huge, and it’s across the country—good timing for the 5G buildout. But with all that low-band spectrum that AT&T and Verizon have, “it’s a difficult incumbent advantage to overcome,” he said, which explains a lot about what’s driving the proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint.
Operators expect to use Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 GHz spectrum to add capacity to places like stadiums. Verizon earlier this month announced 5G at 13 NFL stadiums, but that’s using millimeter wave spectrum and it’s mostly concentrated in parts of seating areas, so the advent of 3.5 GHz spectrum will be a welcome event.
“I think it’s going to be an interesting year for spectrum, especially with CBRS,” Mills said. With new spectrum coming online, it’s always a question of when the end user equipment is going to be ready, and in the case of CBRS, it’s already got smartphone models in the market that support it, as well as the latest iPhone models. So as soon as operators deploy it and flip the switch, it should be evident among end users.