• PC Magazine Tests-Which carrier is the best for fast mobile data where you live? We hit 30 U.S. cities to test speeds on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. Here’s what they found.
  • BY SASCHA SEGAN , PCMAG STAFF
  • Verizon’s new XLTE network is as fast as lightning, but that’s not why it wins the award for America’s fastest mobile network this year. In a nation where we now have four LTE networks battling for dominance, Verizon Wireless takes the crown by being the reliability and coverage king.
  • For our fifth year of Fastest Mobile Networks testing, we brought in a slew of new partners and asked our readers to run their own tests, supplementing our 80,000 cycles of drive testing over 30 cities and thousands of miles. We found that AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, at least, are mostly over the LTE hump in major cities. Sprint still has a way to go before it delivers a truly competitive experience.

T-Mobile provided the year’s big surprise, with a powerful showing where it won half of our cities outright. The carrier’s performance in the nation’s biggest cities was reliably great, although we saw it decline in Indiana, Ohio, and North Carolina where the carrier is spectrum-constrained.

But when we left those major metros, often T-Mobile’s LTE network would completely drop off the map. Our out-of-metro results, as we drove past cities like Kalamazoo, Macon, and Yuma, showed very little availability of either Sprint’s or T-Mobile’s LTE networks, while Verizon’s system stayed admirably strong.

And while AT&T won last year’s prize, this year Verizon really stepped things up with XLTE. That’s Verizon’s term for LTE running on AWS 1700MHz spectrum as well as its previously used 700MHz spectrum. The 700MHz gives Verizon terrific rural coverage, and XLTE boosts speeds in major cities like New York and Boston in a huge way.

For more coverage of Fastest Mobile Networks, see our partners at ChipChick,ExtremeTech, GearDiary, Phonedog, Phonescoop, and Slashgear.

Why Drive Tests Matter
We put our cars on the road because drive testing is the only way to separate network performance from device performance. This year, we chose LG G2 phones to test LTE, because they’re available on all the major carriers and support all of the fastest networks. We drove thousands of miles in three C-MAX hybrid cars supplied by Ford.

When we compared our drive testing with our crowdsourced results, we saw dramatic differences in performance between phones, especially between older and newer devices that support different strains of LTE.

Testing multiple networks in the same place at the same time also matters. Speed tests are generally slower indoors, so if you test one network inside and one outside, it may not be a fair fight. By driving around with multiple devices, you get the best comparison.

Where We Tested
For the first time, all four wireless carriers had LTE in almost all 30 of our test cities, with the exception being Sprint in Denver. We drove to the same 30 major cities we traveled to in 2012 (and with only one change from 2013), evenly spread across six regions of the country.

Outside our 30 cities, our drivers traveled on a mix of interstate and U.S. highways and stopped in smaller cities along the way. The data we collected contributed to a “suburban/rural” score for each of our six regions.

Sensorly provided us with more than 80,000 tests performed everywhere from Aberdeen, SD to Zanesville, OH. Since almost all of those tests were on Sprint and T-Mobile—we just didn’t attract AT&T or Verizon users, apparently—we couldn’t use those tests to compare carriers, but we pulled out some really interesting comparisons between the hundreds of devices Sensorly’s users tested with. Most importantly, we discovered that if you’re a Sprint or Verizon user, you probably need a new phone.

What We Tested
This is fastest mobile networks, so we’re focusing on data speed and reliability. We didn’t test call quality, dropped calls, or coverage. For the best assessment of voice call quality according to our readers, check out our annual Reader’s Choice awards results. To get a picture of wireless coverage near you, go to Sensorly’s website and you’ll see crowdsourced coverage maps for all the major U.S. mobile carriers, enhanced with the data from our test drives.

Mobile networks are constantly changing, and almost always for the better. And because speeds vary based on tower location, network load, device used, and even the weather, we can’t predict performance in a specific location; rather, we’re giving a snapshot of a few days’ worth of usage in several locations across a metro area. Hit the next page for our regional and national winners.

Carrier & Network Profiles

AT&T is in an off year. It has a generally solid network, but we’re seeing congestion pull down speeds from last year’s award-winning heights. We saw its speeds decline by half in cities like Boston, St. Louis, and Kansas City, even as it got faster in Charlotte, Houston, and Phoenix and showed admirable LTE coverage across smaller cities in the Northeast. AT&T is preparing several moves to speed things up next year, using carrier aggregation to bring together scattered chunks of spectrum and turning on some new 2.3GHz airwaves.

Sprint is still hauling itself out of a deep hole. Last year, it covered 24 of our 30 test cities with LTE; this year, it has 29. Its Spark project more than doubled LTE speeds in Miami, Philadelphia, and Houston, but we didn’t see a similar improvement in Baltimore, Chicago, or New York. More importantly, Spark just isn’t measuring up to its 50-60Mbps promises. Out of more than 29,000 crowdsourced tests run on a wide range of Sprint devices, only 289 showed speeds of more than 50Mbps down, and 39 of those seemed to be from a single, very lively Samsung Galaxy S5 in New Jersey.

T-Mobile was this year’s big surprise. Last year, the company hardly had any LTE at all—this year, it covered all 30 of our test cities. If we never ventured out of those cities, it would’ve even been the winner. T-Mobile’s metro-area network gets high marks for consistently delivering LTE-class speeds; we got downloads over 5Mbps more often on T-Mobile than on any other network. It can deliver peak speeds, too. With more than 20,000 crowd sourced tests, we saw maximum speeds of about 100Mbps and more than 2,800 tests above 50Mbps. T-Mobile’s challenge now is to extend that powerful LTE network into the areas between cities where we frequently saw our T-Mobile phone drop to EDGE.

Verizon Wireless is our winner for the year. The nation’s biggest carrier roared to a comeback with XLTE, a broad new highway for its LTE technology. You need an XLTE-compatible phone to take advantage of Verizon’s best speeds, and we very strongly suggest you get one. Verizon is also still the master of reliability and coverage. The company’s LTE network covers even wide open spaces with relatively few people, ensuring a solid data connection wherever you go in the U.S. (That’s good, because Verizon’s 3G network is much slower than AT&T’s or T-Mobile’s.) That makes Verizon Wireless, once again, the best choice for anyone who wants high-speed data from sea to shining sea.

In our reviews, we also discuss U.S. Cellular, which does not participate in Fastest Mobile Networks because it doesn’t cover enough of our test cities. However, our readers do rate U.S. Cellular in our Readers’ Choice Awards.

Many other companies that appear to be wireless carriers just borrow the networks of the Big Four. Consumer Cellular and Cricket are AT&T. MetroPCS is T-Mobile. Boost, Republic, and Virgin are Sprint. Straight Talk uses a mix of AT&T and T-Mobile, while TracFone uses all four networks.

 

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