Thursday, April 19, 2012

Speed, speed and more speed: the 2012 Big Four wireless shootout

Speed, speed, and more speed: everyone wants to go faster, and that includes data transfer on their mobile devices. With that, PC World has done their latest mobile data speed shootout, and the results may be surprising to some.

Among the Big Four U.S. wireless carriers, in terms of 3G speeds, T-Mobile top the crown for both upload and download speeds. It had a score of 2.56 Mbps u/l and 3.7 Mbps d/l. Sprint crept along in both categories at 560 kbps upload and 590 kbps download. That's k, not M, notably.

In terms of 4G, for those carriers with LTE the results were focused on LTE, only, despite the fact that AT&T likes to call its HSPA+ service 4G (and the iPhone 4S displays 4G, to reflect this). That said, AT&T's LTE had the top score in terms of download, with 9.12 Mbps, while Verizon's LTE service averaged 7.35 Mbps. T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 service managed to stay in shouting distance, with 5.53 Mbps average. Sprint's WiMax (the carrier will unveil LTE mid-2012) crept along at 2.62 Mbps.

In terms of Verizon vs. AT&T, one has to wonder if more congestion (more users) on Verizon's LTE network has anything to do with the results. It will be interesting to see how both networks react to the expected LTE iPhone 5. Notably, AT&T's LTE was only available in 11 of the 13 cities that PC World averaged results from.

In terms of upload speeds, Verizon was tops with 5.86 Mbps average, while AT&T was second with 4.91 Mbps average. T-Mobile and Sprint were both trailing badly, with 1.32 Mbps and 970 kbps, respectively.

Some highlights:
  • Verizon LTE was faster than AT&T LTE in only two of the 11 cities that AT&T had LTE service in: New Orleans and San Jose.
  • Sprint seems to have halted any development on its existing 3G and 4G (WiMax) networks while transitioning from WiMax technology to LTE. However, it all makes sense, but means that Sprint lags badly in all tests.
  • T-Mobile's 3G results are great for the parts of the company where there is no 4G. The company continues to be hurt by "no iPhone" and continues to bleed subscribers.
  • Verizon's 3G service, still used by the vast majority of its subscribers, lags badly compared to AT&T and T-Mobile, at least for download speed (1.05 Mbps).
To test the services, Ken Biba, CTO of PC World's testing partner, Novarum, traveled to the 13 cities involved: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Biba tested at five indoor locations and five outdoor locations.

The devices used were:
  • 3G: an Motorola Atrix 2 (AT&T), an LG Marquee (Sprint), a Samsung Sidekick 4G (T-Mobile), and an HTC Droid Incredible (Verizon)
  • 4G: an HTC Vivid (AT&T), an Epic 4G Touch (Sprint), an HTC Amaze (T-Mobile), and a Motorola Droid Razr (Verizon)
The FCC-approved Ookla testing app was used to measure speeds.

In conclusion, it's interesting to note that despite an increase in subscribers, overall, 3G speeds were at least as fast as PC World's year-ago test. 4G infrastructure continues to build out.

That's all good news. However, moves by carriers in terms of added upgrade fees, more throttling, more data tiers (with Sprint being the only carrier to still offer unlimited and unthrottled data) are continued negative.

As noted above, it will be interesting to see next year's results, when the LTE iPhone 5 will be online.

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