AT&T Wins on Speed and Verizon Wins on Reliability in National LTE Test

By Wesley Fenlon

PC Mag drives across the United States for an annual wireless network test. AT&T and Verizon both turned in strong showings, but they have work to do to maintain consistent broadband speeds.

Which carrier in the United States provides the best mobile network? It's a simple but extremely tough to answer question that PC Mag tackles every year by driving around the country and testing 3G and LTE speeds everywhere they go. This year's results may surprise you: AT&T, which took ages to get its LTE network off the ground and into cell towers nationwide, now leads Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint when it comes to network performance. Their LTE speeds are the fastest of the bunch.

In the northeast, AT&T averaged 16 Mbps LTE speeds to Verizon's 10.25 Mbps. In the northern central US, AT&T averaged nearly 19.5 Mbps to Verizon's 15 Mbps. And so it goes for every major urban area across the US--Verizon's speeds typically come in a close second place, though T-Mobile (which has a limited, less-used LTe network) occasionally grabs second place. AT&T's always on top. In the cities.

Of course, that's not quite the whole story. AT&T's network is the fastest in each region of the United States PC Mag tested, but speed isn't everything. When it came to reliability, Verizon often came out ahead. "Beyond our 30 [tested] cities, coverage really mattered, and only one LTE network has nationwide coverage: Verizon 4G LTE," writes PC Mag. "With Verizon's LTE network the only one of its kind in the running, it aced every rural/suburban region and blew away the competing national networks."

Still, there's more good news for AT&T users: PC Mag writes that their network seemed more consistent than in past years. Sprint, meanwhile, is making an important transition from WiMAX to LTE, which is producing faster performance. But only some of Sprint's markets have gotten LTE coverage.

T-Mobile, meanwhile, has a strong backup to its expanding LTE network, in its fast HSPA+ 3G. But it's not quite as good as it sounds: "While it delivers excellent sustained download speeds, those speeds don't look as fast in real life because of a very long time to negotiate the connection, which we measured as 'time to first byte.' ... T-Mobile customers will see major advantages with LTE, which knocked up to two seconds off of the time the first byte arrives on phones. Where we found it, T-Mobile's LTE was faster and more robust than its low-cost rival Sprint, but that may be in part to very few people actually using the network. We always see fast speeds on unloaded networks."

Verizon came in a close second to AT&T in speed but outperformed it in general reliability and nationwide coverage. All of the networks are lacking when it comes to consistent performance, however. PC Mag writes:

"AT&T failed to deliver 8 megabits down at least 20 percent of the time in two thirds of our cities. Verizon did even worse; it only delivered 8Mbps results 80% of the time in Detroit and Indianapolis. And Sprint's hometown of Kansas City was the only place where we saw Sprint LTE exceeding 8Mbps more than half the time.

Verizon did better than AT&T on overall timeouts, though. Looking at cities where LTE networks couldn't complete a 1MB Web page download in 30 seconds, AT&T dipped under 90 percent reliability on that measure in 10 of our 30 cities and Sprint was less than 90 percent reliable in 11 cities, while Verizon only struggled in one.

Image credit: PC Mag.

And then there's coverage. Verizon now covers more than 495 markets; by the time you read this, it should have finished blanketing its entire 3G network with LTE. AT&T has half the coverage at 278, Sprint has 88, and T-Mobile only had seven when we were testing."

There's a lot more in the article, like explanations of how each carrier's wireless frequencies affect their indoor performance, and more detailed regional comparisons. Starting at page 7, PC Mag posts the results from each major market it tested, including Atlanta, New York, Phoenix, Austin, Miami, and Los Angeles--skip ahead to find out how your network performs in your neck of the woods.