AT&T roars back in 3G wireless performance test

After generating disappointing results in tests last spring, AT&T's 3G network is now the top performer in 13-city tests, with download speeds 67 percent faster than its competitors

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Because we couldn't test every city in the country, we chose 13 that are broadly representative of the rest: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, New York City, Orlando, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle. Because wireless signal quality depends to a large extent on variables such as network load, distance from the nearest cell tower, weather, and time of day, our results can't be used to predict specific future performance in a specific area. Rather, they illustrate the relative performance of 3G service in a given city on a given day. Each speed number possesses a margin of error of plus or minus 5%.

The empire strikes back: AT&T's dramatic 3G makeover

Our most recent tests showed that the connection speeds delivered by AT&T's network -- both downloads and uploads -- increased considerably in every one of our test cities, compared with the speeds it registered in identical tests we conducted last spring. In Baltimore, New York City, New Orleans, Portland, and Seattle, AT&T's average download speeds in our tests more than doubled. The network's 13-city average download speed was 1.4 mbps; that's as fast as many home broadband connections. In our tests, none of AT&T's three biggest competitors registered average download speeds of better than 1 mbps.

In our Baltimore, Boston, and New York tests, AT&T's HSPA network delivered burst speeds exceeding 4000 kbps -- a top speed that Sprint and Verizon can't match with their current 3G technology, CDMA EvDO Rev. A.

AT&T's upload speeds were one of the few bright spots in its test results last spring, and the network continued to deliver the fastest upload speeds of the Big Four networks in our latest tests. AT&T upload speeds increased by 58% and now average 773 kbps -- that's 330 kbps faster than the average upload speed we clocked for Verizon, the second-fastest network.

Testing the iPhone on AT&T

Our smartphone-based tests of the AT&T network told the same story as our laptop-based tests, though they also revealed the speed limitations of smartphones in general, especially when the devices are uploading data to the network. The AT&T and iPhone combo turned in the fastest average speeds -- downstream and upstream -- of the four carrier/smartphone combinations we tested, outperforming its rivals in more than three-fourths of the cities we sampled. AT&T connected the iPhone at an average download speed of 1259 kbps, and an average upload speed of 215 kbps over the13 testing cities. The iPhone clocked download speeds of at least 1000 kbps in more than 60% of our testing locations, with burst rates often exceeding 3000 kbps, and we managed to obtain a reliable connection in 91% of our AT&T/iPhone tests.

What happened?

AT&T appears to have added considerable data service capacity during a year when its wireless subscriber base grew considerably, as did the amount of data service those subscribers use. During 2009, AT&T's total subscriber count swelled from 77 million to more than 85 million, with a growing proportion of those subscribers -- 40%, AT&T says -- now using smartphones. And of AT&T's 85 million subscribers, 10.3 million now connect to the network using an iPhone, which seems to invite users to perform bandwidth-intensive activities such as Web browsing and video streaming. "On the AT&T network, we're seeing advanced smartphones like the iPhone driving up to 10 times the amount of usage of other devices on average," says AT&T spokesperson Jenny Bridges.

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