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Watch out AT&T: Verizon’s new LTE network monster stirs in NYC

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AT&T’s(s t) LTE service has been beating Verizon’s 4G network soundly in performance tests — as any Ma Bell marketing exec will tell you if given half a chance — but the days are numbered in which AT&T can claim the title of country’s fastest network. Since the past spring Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) has been planning a new LTE rollout that would put AT&T or any other U.S. carrier’s network speeds to shame. And that network has quietly popped up in New York City.

GigaOM reader and mobile network tracker Milan Milanovic spotted Verizon’s awakening beast in multiple locations in Midtown Manhattan. Milanovic happens to be the type of guy who carries around a handheld spectrum analyzer — and I love him for it — which shows the new LTE signals in the 2.1 GHz Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) band. But you don’t have to own special hardware to see the network in action. The new LTE signals are registering on smartphones that support 4G in that band, such as those working on T-Mobile’s networks, and Milanovic was able to force his Verizon iPhone 5s(s aapl) to connect to it.

Verizon AWS LTE tests

The results, according to Ookla’s Speedtest app, were download connection speeds of 80 Mbps and uplink speeds of 15 Mbps. Verizon is able to achieve this by doubling up on frequencies. It’s deploying its new LTE systems in many markets on a full 40 MHz of spectrum, making the new network twice as powerful as any currently in the U.S. Verizon was able to piece together such a large piece of spectral real estate by buying up all of the cable operators 4G licenses last year.

While 80 Mbps may seem impressive, keep in mind this is a trial network with no commercial users — real-world speeds will be slower once the network is loaded. In fact, it’s actually quite surprising that the Milanovic didn’t clock much faster data rates. A 40-MHz LTE network theoretically supports 150 Mbps on the download, and while hitting that theoretical ceiling is impossible, a single connection on an unloaded network should be getting close to that mark.

Milanovic hypothesized that either Verizon is artificially restricting data rates or that the fiber backhaul connecting the cell site to its network core isn’t yet powerful enough to support these boosted speeds. Both explanations are plausible. Milanovic said he has gotten reports of similar network sightings from other testers in Chicago and Los Angeles, though I wasn’t able to confirm those reports. I reached out to Verizon to ask about the network trials, but I’m still waiting to hear back.

Regardless, when this new network comes online, Verizon will have a powerful weapon to combat AT&T in the 4G wars. AT&T’s current LTE network is averaging 16.7 Mbps, according to PCMag’s most recent tests, and has a theoretical ceiling of 75 Mbps. AT&T, unlike Verizon, doesn’t have the spectrum necessary to build a fatter pipe, at least not in the near term. Once Verizon takes this network live — and hopefully drops its capacity restrictions — we’ll almost certainly be crowning a new 4G speed king.

iPhone screen shots courtesy of Milan Milanovic

15 Responses to “Watch out AT&T: Verizon’s new LTE network monster stirs in NYC”

  1. This is great news. I’m not that sure if this is due to AWS or not, but out here in Peoria I’ve noticed that:

    1) VZW 4G LTE coverage has markedly improved recently
    2) Apps download faster over 4G than via my 50 Mbps Comcast Xfinity connection

    That said, mobile data caps make much of this speed pretty much useless. A sustained 80 Mbps of data will blow through a 4 GB/month limit in literally 6.82 minutes flat.

  2. cgoodermote

    They aren’t using all 40MHz for download which is why it tops out at 80Mbps. Remember that 80 is roughly half of 150 and Verizon is only using 20MHz on the download and 20MHz on the upload. I’ve maxed out at 75Mbps download on my iPhone 5S in Bryant Park. This isn’t an issue of backhaul as I’m sure Verizon has provisioned many of the towers for 1Gbps fiber links (being that they own most of their own backhaul in NYC) to be prepared for any future upgrades.

    • I thought about the same possibility, but by looking at the spectrum analyzer you can see that both A+B block are in fact active. Now it could be network scheduling, and there is no way we for us to see that.

      Also, Verizon does own the fiber in NYC, and I’m pretty sure they have the hardware on the BTS side in place to support 1Gbps throughput, but that still doesn’t mean that their backhaul service has been provisioned for 3x capacity. As Kevin pointed out they’re still testing their AWS network layer, and paying for bandwidth that isn’t required yet may not be cost effective at this point. It’s a matter of simple remote provisioning.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi EJ,

      Remember these aren’t stand alone sites. Verizon has multiple 700 MHz LTE sectors plus all of its EV-DO networks on the same towers. Why provision more backhaul capacity if the network isn’t yet live?

  3. Not sure how much of a new monster this is. My bog-standard stock Verizon Galaxy S3 has been getting routine Ookla readings of 50-60 down and 20 up, and even one test that got 65.5 down, 20.0 up. This is on nothing but plain old VZW LTE that serves my home in a very boring rundown neighborhood outside Atlanta.

    80 might be higher but is anything or anyone other than a service monitor meter going to be able to tell 80 from 60? And what will 80 do to battery life? I know what it would do to my data cap. Nothing nice.

  4. William Diaz

    Are we even including the fact that Sprint now owns Clearwire and that their 2.5Ghz spectrum is being used for LTE as well. With 120Mhz of 2.5Ghz spectrum, nationwide, that network, theoretically if Sprint could ever do anything right for once, would blow Verizon out of the water. If you were to take that same spectrum and aggregate it with their current PCS and SMR/ESMR spectrum allotments, that too could be exceeding Verizon and their 700Mhz/AWS aggregation – correct?

  5. Tim Beynart

    Are they going to move voice onto LTE? Logically, higher speeds mean lower times on the network per user for internet access, but voice doesn’t offer that benefit.

  6. evster88

    It’s not the size of your spectrum, but how you use it! Most of the advanced implementations of LTE achieve greater efficiency with the same amount of spectral allowance, it’s up to the networks to implement them.

    • As a person who works in telecom and who plans and deploys 4g networks across the globe … the above comment makes no sense ….. spectral efficiency is limited by the present technology….. 4g as described by 3gpp and hence most of the top ppl who provide (ericsson, NSN,alcatel) the spectral efficiency tapping method to the operator like verizon atnt have no choice they have to use whats available i the market…… u cant just say spectral efficiency both at n t and verizon implement everything the same way !

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Evster88,

      It’s true that network capacity will improve in multiple ways — improved spectral efficiency, greater reuse (more cells) — but you can’t just write off increased bandwidth. Verizon is effectively doubling the lanes in its network highway.

      • William Diaz

        Verizon has two thoughts on this. One is to reclaim the best and fastest network, but that lies second to their biggest thought, which is to offer the most spectral efficient network, the network that can handle the MOST customers (cause more customers = more $, which = more data overages again = more $).

        They are looking for the best way to offer a decent speed, but not sacrifice any capacity. They are replacing CDMA, so they need to think of the data network, the all-IP LTE network first in voice and text capacity, THEN speed. Id not be surprised if Verizon has limited the speed on purpose to prevent users from hogging more bandwidth than they truly need. Sure, 100mbps is awesome, but limiting to 80, or 60 or hell even 40mbps isnt going to kill anyone if that latency is still low. At this point, we arent as advanced to really necessitate a speed more than 40mbps. So limiting the network, to dedicate a portion of it to voice bandwidth is smart. That is what Verizon is doing.

        Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T on the other hand are doing it differently. Sprint is limiting the plan itself by limiting the ability of how video is downloaded to devices, by offering only 1mbps of data speed, rather than dedicating a portion of their slow LTE network to VoLTE bandwidth. AT&T is going to rely on their backup HSPA+ network for many years to come, and to a lesser extent so will T-Mobile.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Good point, Nick, and I agree with you for the most part. When you’re talking about speeds to a smartphone the difference between15 Mbps and 80 Mbps are little, especially if you can only consume a finite amount of data each month. But greater speeds also mean more capacity — Verizon can support more users and more devices simply because it has more spectrum devoted to LTE.