Wi-Fi hotspot speeds are still faster than 4G in the U.S., but that could soon change

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OpenSignal’s newest report on U.S. Wi-Fi speeds contains a particularly interesting nugget of information: the network measurement firm found that the Wi-Fi speeds we get from public hotspots, in places like coffee shops, hotels and retail stores, are consistently faster than the speeds we see over 4G networks.

While the typical smartphone user connects to a free Wi-Fi hotspot at 8.77 Mbps, he or she sees only 6.52 Mbps on an LTE link and just 4.31 Mbps on an HSPA+ link, according to OpenSignal’s data, which it collects from millions of tests taken by its crowdsourced network measurement app.

Average speeds on U.S. wireless networks to the smartphone (Source: OpenSIgnal)

Average speeds on U.S. wireless networks to the smartphone (Source: OpenSIgnal)

That’s probably not a big shock to many of you. More bandwidth is often one of the main reasons we switch from LTE to Wi-Fi when it’s available, but the U.S. is actually an exception among countries with developed 4G infrastructures. In places like Sweden, Australia, Korea, Japan and the U.K., LTE connections routinely outpace public Wi-Fi networks. Carriers like the U.K.’s Everything Everywhere are reporting that Wi-Fi usage on their customers’ devices is actually on the decline.

Why the discrepancy? It has a lot to do with the way the U.S. deployed 4G. It was among the first countries in the world to deploy large-scale LTE networks, but those networks were built over fairly small chunks of spectrum. While U.S. carriers were using 5 MHz or 10 MHz of spectrum for their download channels, European carriers started with 20 MHz. In Australia and East Asia, several carriers have already started using LTE-Advanced carrier aggregation techniques to pile even more spectrum onto their networks.

But there’s another reason as well. The U.S. has a very high LTE penetration. Nearly half of all global LTE connections at the end of 2013 were on U.S. networks, according to the GSMA. Basically, that means our networks are getting crowded with more people competing for the same capacity. Combine that demand with the smaller size of our pipes, and you can see why the U.S. is almost dead last in OpenSignal’s global LTE speed rankings.

Average speeds on global LTE networks (source: OpenSignal)

Average speeds on global LTE networks (source: OpenSignal)

But there’s a lot of new network construction going on the U.S. this year. Verizon recently built a new LTE network at a new frequency band in major cities. In many areas, that new network boasts twice the speed of its old one. AT&T is doing the same, and it’s also using new carrier aggregation to bond those networks together. Every six months or so, T-Mobile is doubling the capacity of its current network.

That should mean that speeds will kick up a few notches, as more devices that can tap these networks come onto the market. At some point, we’ll find our 4G networks delivering a better experience than a Starbucks hotspot.

That said, Wi-Fi speeds are also improving. OpenSignal found that when Starbucks moved from AT&T to Google Wi-Fi, average speeds went up by 4 Mbps. And we’re still just on the cusp of seeing new 802.11ac technologies deployed. We could wind up having a race between wireless technologies.

Source: OpenSignal

Source: OpenSignal

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