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Summary:

AT&T EVP John Donovan claims Ma Bell has built a better network. AT&T may have been a year behind Verizon in LTE, but it was able to take advantage of newer technology and better network planning.

Number 1 foam hands rankings
photo: Shutterstock / Kittisak

Sometimes getting beat to market isn’t a bad thing. Though AT&T was a full year behind Verizon Wireless in deploying its LTE systems, it’s now routinely outscoring Verizon on multiple network speed and performance tests.

Last spring, RootMetrics clocked AT&T’s average LTE network speeds a full 4.3 Mbps faster than Verizon’s. PCMag’s recent extensive nationwide tests crowned AT&T speed king in every region of the U.S., though it found Verizon’s 4G network more reliable and more ubiquitous. PCWorld’s own 13-city test reached similar conclusions on 4G download speeds, though it found Verizon’s network was superior on the upload.

RootMetrics iPhone App.Screen Shot.Nov 2010

Part of the explanation lies in congestion. Verizon’s network is hardly brimming over – it’s maintaining average speeds in excess of 10 Mbps – but it has more LTE devices on its network by virtue of having sold them for far longer. Cellular capacity is ultimately shared capacity so the more devices you have competing for airtime the slower everyone’s speeds will be. But this is quickly becoming less of a point of difference on their networks, considering smartphone replacement cycles are so short. Samsung and Apple just flooded both networks with millions of new Galaxy S 4s and iPhone 5s.

AT&T Senior EVP of technology and network operations John Donovan has an alternate explanation: AT&T took its time to build a better network.

We’ve been hearing this from a lot of operators. Both Sprint and T-Mobile claim that by being late to LTE they’ve been able to take advantage of the latest gear, giving them superior networks. There’s some truth to that, especially when it comes to future network upgrades. But in a call with a group of reporters and bloggers Wednesday, Donovan laid out specifics on why AT&T’s rollout improved on Verizon’s.

Why LTE  is better eaten as soup than as broth

It was a “gut-wrenching decision” to let its prime competitor take the early lead on LTE, Donovan said, but it allowed AT&T to plan its network in a different way and use new technologies more effectively.

Crowd density dense network featureFirst off, AT&T was able to build a denser network. Verizon was so quick to LTE because its 3G networks were still poking along at sub-megabit EV-DO speeds. That led Verizon to focus on coverage – delivering mobile broadband to as many places as possible to overcome its 3G limitations.

Meanwhile, AT&T was less concerned about coverage since most people could decent speeds on its HSPA+ networks, and more focused on building more powerful networks where capacity was most needed, Donovan said. The more cells there are any given area, the more customers the network can support and the faster speeds it can deliver to each customer.

Of course, this sounds a bit like a rationalization for why Verizon’s coverage is far superior to AT&T (Verizon’s LTE reaches 500 markets compared to AT&T’s 326, and Verizon stretches further into the suburbs of most of cities). But Donovan does raise a good point. If AT&T’s average speeds are significantly faster, it means its networks are much further away from reaching capacity. At the current rates, Verizon will start experiencing congestion sooner than AT&T.

Either carrier will likely head off that congestion before it becomes an issue simply by adding more capacity. Verizon is already building LTE network No. 2. AT&T’s second LTE network is probably still several years away, but AT&T is keeping with its densification theme by aggressively pursuing small cells. It plans to deploy 40,000 of the little buggers in the next few years.

My radio has seemed awfully remote lately

One of the emerging technologies AT&T was able to take advantage was the remote radio head, Donovan said. Remote in this instance doesn’t mean emotional distance. Rather it refers to the radio’s location at the cell site.

base-station-images-e12916713808271Traditional cellular architectures tend to cram all of the active electronics into a base station cabinet at the bottom of the tower. The wireless signal then crawls up the tower through coaxial cable before it’s beamed out through the antenna. The problem with this setup is the signal loses a lot of power during the journey.

By putting the radio at the top of the tower next to the antenna, AT&T was able to mitigate much of that power loss, giving it much more powerful signal the moment it leaves the antenna, Donovan said. More power means greater range and a more resilient signal, which translates into faster speeds and higher capacity, especially at the cell edge where things tend to get wonky.

Basically AT&T’s radio architecture gives it a power boost over Verizon, which is relying on the traditional radio base station scheme, Donovan said. There are a few other network tweaks Donovan pointed out that give AT&T an edge. He said AT&T has more fiber running to its cell sites. It also managed to add more spectrum in cities like Chicago and Miami where its networks were undersized. He added that AT&T has a much more distributed mobile core, meaning data traffic is getting onto the internet faster producing a lower latency network. (Clarification: Though AT&T’s LTE has some of the lowest measured latency among U.S. networks, it’s not beating out Verizon. PCMag recored lower latency on Verizon’s network in all but one U.S. region.)

That last point is telling because it shows mobile networks are improving in other ways than speed. We’re reaching the point where discussions of speed are becoming academic. Ten Mbps to a smartphone is plenty. As I’ve written before, what now matters most is the overall mobile experience and the prices we actually pay for mobile internet access.

Still, AT&T’s faster network nothing to scoff at. In this case, speed means more than just speed. It means AT&T still has more capacity, and capacity is every carrier’s and every customer’s best friend.

Density image courtesy of Shutterstock user higyou

  1. The catch is: ATT coverage sucks..even in Silicon Valley. I got zero bar at my house right in downtown San Jose. fck that.

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  2. Matt Newcombe Wednesday, July 10, 2013

    How will this network configuration compare to T-Mo and Sprint’s LTE deployment plans?

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Wednesday, July 10, 2013

      Hi Matt,

      In all of the reports, AT&T and Verizon beat out Sprint and T-Mo. In Sprint’s case it’s because it only has half the spectrum dedicated to LTE (10 MHz as opposed to 20 MHz). In T-Mo’s case it’s network is so new that it hasn’t really been tested. T-Mo launched LTE in about 100 markets today, so they’ll start popping up in the testing. They have a 20 MHz of LTE in half their cities and 10 MHz in others so depending on where you’re at you’ll probably see some of the fastest speeds in the country or just average throughputs.

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  3. Sounds like pleasant news for AT&T but their decision to be “less concerned about coverage” cost them dearly. I think the world of customers in New York City and Los Angeles fled AT&T based on really disgraceful service and coverage and disregard for customer satisfaction. Personally, as an AT&T loyalist (15 years, counting all mergers and acquisitions), I stayed with them, but the dropped calls and lack of any phone service in prime metropolitan zones was too much. AT&T can drop dead as far as I’m concerned, and it will take a very large effort to win back the customers who relied on them and who they happily let go.

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    1. My feelings are mutual. Their service and coverage is deplorable in the DC/MD/VA area. I was with AT&T for over 18 years and when they went to the “New” technology I began to experience dropped calls, late delivered voicemails and text messages as well as call made to my cell but never was delivered. And to try to work with them to resolve this issue was extremely painful. They did not care to fix it “it’s the nature of the service” I was told.

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      1. I’m actually experiencing the complete opposite issue. Verizon LTE in NYC did not work for me at all. Any time I would go indoors it would go down to one bar. Not jut me but all Verizon lte users. 3G was also pretty bad with that, but not as bad as LTE. For me it’s data that is more important to me than phone calls. With Verizon in Times Square or right outside the Empire State Building I would have 1-2 bars and speed tests would be under 1 Mbps. I moved to AT&T LTE and wow what an unbelievable difference. Everywhere I go indoors (not literally everywhere) I have perfect coverage. Even if I have 1-2 bars which is actually rare, the service just works. Any time I don’t have coverage and I get pissed (really rare) I would tell myself “Verizon is 10000 times worse”

        I’m an IT technician and I know the issue isn’t just with my phone because my partner and my close friend has the exact same issues in the exact same spots. Just google “Verizon LTE NYC” and you’ll see 5-6 threads about LTE being garbage.

        If I know I’m going away to a town where AT&T coverage is minimal, which is no more than once every 2 years, I can just grab a Verizon mifi and a prepaid SIM card. I rather have a phone with coverage that works in my area than to have a phone with bad coverage in my area but perfect coverage everywhere else. Think about it- 95% if the time you are in your home area.

        I can’t speak for places like LA and DC. But I can say I experienced the exact same thing in Miami. It was so bad that I turned off LTE and was stuck on that slow CDMA 3G network.

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        1. I agree completely. I left AT&T hoping for more reliable service in Times Square NYC and picked up Verizon. My service did not improve. I get a bar or two from the sixth floor of a glass highrise. My non-Verizon coworkers have full signal. Data rates are horrible. I don’t want to switch back to AT&T so I’m exploring other options.

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  4. Interesting AT&T mentioned latency. I believe it was in PC Mag’s report, Verizon’s latency in every region was lower (lower = better) than AT&T’s. The speed may also have been lower, but as you said, 10 Mbps is plenty, but Verizon’s network is not only more reliable but snappier in response thanks to the lower latency.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Thursday, July 11, 2013

      Thanks for pointing this out, Justin. AT&T’s latencies have definitely dropped, but according to the PCMag report Verizon’s are still lower. I’m noting this in the post.

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  5. I do a lot of speed tests and on Sprint’s LTE network around Chicago it really depends what time it is. Right now (3:40CST) I get 7Mbps down / 2Mbps up, at night I can get 20Mbps down / 10Mbps up.

    It’s also important that you look at *sustained* download speeds. uTorrent on my S4 can sustain ~1.2MB/s down, not sure about upload, that may be a limit of the phone memory though.

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  6. Be cautious of how much of Donovan’s rationale on a “more powerful signal” you buy. The FCC limits transmit power to 20W at the antenna. While it is true that an RRH consumes less amplifier power because it has less loss in a shorter run to the antenna than a traditional base station, this has little to do with effective broadcast energy. An old-school base station would simply use a higher transmit power to make up the loss (so that it still emitted 20W at the antenna). There is, however, a thoeretical advantage in reducing noise-to-signal ratios on both the Tx and Rx channels with shorter runs and less amplification, which might translate to a more robust relationship between your phone and the tower (fewer bit errors = more capacity) all other things being equal. A lot of other factors contribute to this, however, such as the condition of the physical connections, proximity of the antenna to RF absorbing/reflecting/interacting materials, and interference from other radio sources, so if AT&T is really faster, it would most likely be due to the other “minor” improvements (more fiber, more sites, newer model equipment, etc) he noted.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Thursday, July 11, 2013

      Hey Noah,

      Thanks for bringing this up. So this has been a bit that has always confused me. Is transmit power measured from the antenna or from the radio? Everyone seems to imply its measured from the radio so they get real gains in power especially when it comes to maximum limits (which I realize no one is really transmitting at in a dense urban network anyway). So what you’re saying is that’s all a hogwash, right? That the advantage for an RRU is that you have a “purer” or less noisy signal when it leaves the tower? Sorry if I’m butchering the terminology. I’m not an engineer.

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      1. Kevin,

        What he’s saying is you’re not getting a more powerful output but perhaps a more useful signal. In other words, if the site is supposed to emit 20W and the radio is in a traditional location at the tower’s base, that radio may emit 25W (example) so the antenna is still radiating 20W after the line losses. So the argument that radios at the antenna creates a more “powerful” signal is not true, from an emitted-watt perspective.

        However, the signal may be improved because there are no line losses running up or down the coax (fewer chances for signal manipulation, interference, and therefore degradation), so the signal may be more useful and in that sense more “powerful”.

        There are other improvements from locating the radio at the antenna, like lower power bills or reduced lease payments because required space is reduced at the base of the tower, neither of which really impacts the customer but more so the companies’ bottom lines.

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      2. Noah Montena Monday, July 15, 2013

        You (and Justin, below) have it essentially right. Regardless of the value of the power level the FCC sets as the limit, it is at the antenna (where it is radiating) that it is supposed to be measured. The assumption is that the coax lines that connect the radio to the antenna may have loss, but that none of it is through radiation. The radio (even an RRH) will always be pumping out more RF than what makes it to the air, it’s just a matter of wasting as little as possible before it gets there in order to reduce the amplification that is required in order to reduce the amount of noise that gets swept up into the useful signal. It is a bigger deal for the recieved signal than for the transmitted, since that is always pretty weak (coming, as it does, from your phone over some distance). On paper, this, along with the reduced mains or backup power consumption, is a major plus for RRH installation. In real life, it usually has to be balanced with serviceability concerns. On a 300ft tower in the middle of nowhere, a traditional base station layout usually wins because the sensitive (and heavy) radio gear is expensive to get to, and vulnerable to weather and lightening strikes, costing in the low thousands just to put a climbing crew on-site, whereas on a city rooftop it is less difficult to put the radio on or very near the antenna, although the wieght and size of RRH units can sometimes exceed the zoning requirements, or overwhelm the ricketty brackets attaching the support framework to the crumbling masonry at the top of most buildings with cheap leases.
        Density of competitors would not necessarily lead to reduced transmit levels, since they are assumed to be on distinct frequencies. If they are not putting out the full 20W per channel, it would only be because the auto gain adjustment in the radio determined it wasn’t necessary for a given connection to whichever handset it was currently communicating, and that transmitting at the max might produce interference on its own channel. For this reason you should always take seriously the warning signage near cellular installations, typically indicating that you should not be there without authorization and not be near the antennas especially, unless you know the system is off.

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  7. Kevin, you’ve been duped by spin and doubletalk.
    What I want from my carrier is high performance, high availability, no dropped calls and adequate bandwidth for what I’m doing with my phone and with my laptop which has its’ own LTE modem.
    Can AT&T match or beat the Verizon availability? No. Not anywhere in the country.
    Can AT&T sustain all calls from start to finish? Not according to the people I know.
    Can AT&T deliver the same low-latency to the Internet for my computer or smartphone activities? Not according to your sources.
    Does AT&T sell smartphones that are more powerful than the ones Verizon sells? No, so then how do the phones communicate with those far-awy but oh so powerful towers?
    I burn 600-700 minutes a month on my phone on Verizon and I might have had two dropped calls last year. I download 3-4 GB a month on my laptop when I’m wasay from home and I get download speeds up to 36 Mbs at some times.
    There’s not much in your story that means anything on the street. Sorry.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Friday, July 12, 2013

      Bandwidthguy,

      This post is entirely about speed tests, and that’s clear from the first sentence on. Not only do I point out several times that Verizon has greater coverage, but I’ve written numerous other posts making that point. In fact, I don’t put as much stock in speed as a lot of writers do, because like you say, what matters is how the service performs on the street. And in my mind there’s not much difference between 10 Mbps and 15 Mbps when you’re taking about a smartphone.

      But this speed race does matter to a lot of people. They want the fastest network period. And average speed on a network is also a way of measuring congestion loads and overall capacity. And given AT&T’s networks seem to be getting faster relative to Verizon’s, not evening out, it’s definitely worth noting.

      I’m also not citing “sources”. I’m citing AT&T’s technology chief John Donovan and several independent studies. Donovan certainly has a bone to pick with Verizon, but he’s not hiding behind anonymity. He’s making his claims in public. And his claims are a reasonable explanation as to why AT&T is outperforming Verizon in speed tests. Both carriers are using the same amount of spectrum and the same vendors’ gear. There have to be reasons why one is performing better than the other.

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  8. Nationwide surveys and studies are fine and all, but what actually matters is how well the service works where a given user wants to use it. In my office at work, ATT signal is basically zero.

    This is demonstrated daily by coworkers going into odd yoga-like poses next to the windows trying to find a signal, or more importantly on the day when our land line failed and everybody who was in the office was also an ATT user and thus nobody could call into or out of the office.

    Since that incident, everybody but one worker has left ATT for Sprint, Verizon or T-Mobile, all of which work fine in the same office. It isn’t just our specific office; ATT service stinks in our entire office complex and downtown area of probably 10,000 people.

    Since I know ATT won’t work where I work, the speed claims mean nothing. It could be rated at gigabit for all I care. Meanwhile on Verizon LTE, I routinely see 50-60mbit anyway so I don’t think whatever extra ATT has -if it worked, would matter that much. These speeds are already pretty awesome.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Friday, July 12, 2013

      Hey PMDR,

      You hit on the exact reason why it’s impossible to directly compare one carrier to another. Everything depends on your specific city and even your specific location. Studies like these are useful for averages — and in general most of them find Verizon to higher coverage, more reliable network — but averages don’t really mean squat if you’re using your phone mainly in two locations, home and work, and those locations deviate considerably from the averages.

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      1. Speed tests need to incorporate the average download speed, not just the speed you get if you happen to be sitting in a well covered ATT area at the moment.

        When you include ATT’s download speeds of 0Mbps in many suburbs and network holes in major Metro areas while Verizon get’s full LTE speeds in those areas there is no way that ATT’s network is faster. For the average user the average network speeds are universally faster on Verizon.

        It is a false claim to say your network is faster when you are systematically tossing out all the data points where you have a slow network or zero network speeds.

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  9. I’ll echo a few others sentiments. I carry both an AT&T phone (personal) and a Verizon phone (work). While AT&T maybe statistically faster, in practice, the coverage deficiencies make it feel average or frustrating. This is bothersome to me since in my limited travel experience, my AT&T home market seems to have ‘good’ coverage.

    Conversely, Verizon may be a small percent slower, but basically everywhere I go, my phone displays good strength on the bars, making the network seem consistent and reliable.

    As a consumer, I feel like I don’t realize the full value of my money on AT&T. In fact, I will be putting my money where my words are at in January when my wife’s AT&T contract is up. I intend to try out T-Mobile, and if the coverage for our daily life isn’t sufficient, move to Verizon. This is totally a value proposition, less money spent means living with slightly less service (T-Mobile) or the same money spent, having top tier service (Verizon).

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  10. The wife and I just left Verizon about a month ago because I’m an android enthusiast and Verizon isn’t. Put it to you this way, we never had any reason to use WiFi at home because out 4g LTE down/up was that good 20+/12+… Now on Att we hardly see 5-6 down. Up is just deplorable. Did I mention we’re in the NY/NJ area? Our radios switch so much between 4g and 4g LTE that its a strain on the battery that I’ve an app that keeps it solely on 4g to conserve energy. As far as I’m concerned, its total bullshit that they have the faster service. No one beats Verizon, no one!!! Att needs to get their shit together.

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