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Summary:

Now that all four U.S. national carriers offer 4G mobile broadband service, you’d think it was all the same, right? Using an innovative crowdsourced application, Root Metrics tested all of the 4G providers in Seattle and the visual results immediately highlight the vast difference in service.

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Ever since Sprint launched its Evo with WiMAX last year, calling it the nation’s first 4G phone, competing operators have scrambled to use the 4G moniker for their own devices and services. T-Mobile soon began touting that its HSPA+ network upgrades would bring “4G-like speeds” and now simply uses the 4G tag for phones that have 14 Mbps or better radios. AT&T is currently in the process of  similar HSPA+ upgrade and has used 4G in the name of recent handsets, such as the Motorola Atrix 4G and HTC Inspire 4G. And in December, Verizon launched its own 4G network upgrade in the form of LTE, which is different from HSPA+ and WiMAX.

As this point, 4G is more of a marketing term than anything else for the carriers because technically, none of the current solutions meet the initial International Telecommunications Union definition of 4G. However, the ITU backtracked a bit because it realized all these mobile broadband networks offer speeds that are noticeably faster than 3G networks. That helps the marketers, but what does it mean to consumers? Would the 4G service from one carrier be comparable to that from another? The best way to answer that question is to test each carrier’s 4G service in one geographic area, and that’s exactly what RootMetrics did in Seattle, Wash.; the detailed results of which you can see here.

I first saw the company’s innovative mobile app last January. It crowdsources both the quality of service and mobile broadband bandwidth speeds, making it an excellent tool to test the 4G claims of each major carrier. Earlier this month, RootMetrics put the networks to the test and clearly, not all 4G networks are equal. Verizon’s LTE network in Seattle performed much as I found it in my local area: extremely fast and reliable. One could argue that few are on the network, which is a valid point, but regardless, the carrier is delivering as advertised, with an average download speed of more than 17 Mbps and 100 percent availability in Root’s testing.

Sprint’s WiMAX and T-Mobile’s HSPA+ were found to deliver fairly comparable downloads of 4.4 Mbps with the data availability ranging from 80 to 90 percent for both. T-Mobile’s service fared better on the upload side, however, providing more than double that of Sprint’s 605 Kbps on WiMAX. AT&T doesn’t yet show Seattle as a 4G city — the current coverage maps I found show about 10 cities with 4G — so it’s no surprise that a 4G handset in Root’s testing indicated the slowest speeds. Downloads on AT&T averaged 1.1 Mbps, which are indicative of 3G throughput; even with a 4G phone. Those are the high-level results, but this graph showing which carrier delivers what speeds at various intervals brings further detail to the picture.

It’s certainly true that mobile broadband performance is affected by many factors: location and cell tower proximity, the number of users in a given cell area, and the speed of the wired backhaul that provides connectivity from the tower to the web. But all carriers face those challenges and yet all deliver a widely different level of service even while marketing the mobile broadband as 4G. Maybe the ITU should have stuck to its guns?

  1. What about the fact that the AT&T phones you mentioned with the 4G in their name (Motorola Atrix 4G and HTC Inspire 4G) don’t even have HSUPA activated yet? If the competitors don’t make these things evident (like the old 3G maps adds Verizon used to run) then the consumer will suffer.

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    1. thats why AT&T is falling behind.

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  2. How can anyone possibly test these networks when AT&T doesn’t even have a LTE network deployed (nor does it promote a 4G network at this time) and Verizon’s 4G network is being used by such a small percentage of people there’s no actual load on it to provide realistic benchmarks in real-world use?

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    1. Oh, no Brad, AT&T most definitely promotes HSPA+ as 4G.
      http://www.att.com/network/#fbid=fMelyEE2DXE

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    2. how dumb are you? since there arent alot of people on the verizon 4g network that means its not “real” jeeze can you morons who live life through the bliss of ingnorance just shut up.

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  3. the first graphs picture doesn’t even have the right colors for the download and upload. This is shit!

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    1. Take a second glance buddy, its obviously a gray-scale key, where the bold color represents black. Common sense, if only it were a bit more common.

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  4. My inspire has never done worse than 2.5 mbps. Granted that’s not great for “4g” but lol at 1.1. My old phone’s 3g was faster than that. In a huge city no less.

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  5. Verizon just got its first 4g phone……wait until all the users start getting 4g devices and then run these tests….

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    1. it will run the same kiddo. just like how Verizon’s 3g isnt bogged down. and the 4g def wont be for a long time. there is a reason Verizon has less dropped calls. the protocols they use is 10x better than AT&T at spreading out call volume. the same goes for data usage. you people need to go learn a bit of technology and understand the “networks” and how they work please.

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  6. It’s little wonder that AT&T wants to buy out T-Mobile to improve their sickly service reputation; even if they could become MODESTLY better than their history has shown !

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  7. Last I checked the entire US population doesn’t live in Seattle. Need to add more cities before this data can be considered statistically valid.

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  8. Like anyone except the Boost-Mobile and MetroPCS crowd cares – so they can name-drop “I got the 4G at the BK, where you at?”.

    What difference does it make if you call it “4G” if it just means you exceed your cap quicker?

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