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

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Page 3
Page 3 of 7

At the time of our first 3G network test last spring, AT&T's premier device -- the iPhone -- had become both a blessing and a curse: The company's coup of becoming the exclusive service provider for the iPhone undoubtedly helped swell the customer base for its wireless services. But the iPhone also seriously challenged AT&T's data network resources, especially in iPhone-happy places like San Francisco and New York City.

Shortly after we revealed the results of our Spring 2009 tests, AT&T announced plans to increase the speed of its 3G service. To achieve this goal, AT&T said, it would upgrade its networks to the faster High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) 7.2 technology (thereby doubling the maximum speeds of upgraded cell sites), utilize better-performing portions of the wireless spectrum, increase backhaul capacity, and add new cell towers.

In a recent conference call with investors, AT&T head of operations John Stankey said that the company had finished upgrading its network to HSPA 7.2 technology far ahead of schedule. "We have already turned up the 7.2 software on our 3G cell sites nationwide," Stankey said on the call. He also pointed out that AT&T had added 1900 new cell sites and had converted its network to the 850MHz spectrum band, during 2009.

The combination of these improvements probably accounts for the large speed increases we saw in our recent tests. "It is clear that at this time AT&T has the highest-performing network with the highest user capacity, based on our sample," says Novarum CTO Ken Biba, who conducted the tests. "With the additional investment in HSPA 7.2 base stations [last year] and high-speed backhaul infrastructure, AT&T has room for growth in demand." Biba says. "However, demand will only accelerate with the iPad, e-readers, streaming video, and new mobile applications. Will AT&T have enough capacity with HSPA 7.2? Will the transition to LTE happen fast enough? These are all key questions for 2010."

Verizon: Signal fading slightly

We measured Verizon's 13-city average download speed at 877 kbps, down 8% from its average of 951 kbps in our tests last spring. Verizon's average download speed decreased in seven of twelve of our testing cities compared to the figures we recorded last spring; and in five of those cities -- Chicago, New Orleans, Phoenix, San Jose, and Seattle -- Verizon's average dropped by 15% or more.

Verizon had the best-performing network in our tests last spring, with the fastest overall speeds and strong network reliability. But our recent test results suggest that Verizon may not be keeping up with demand in some markets.

Verizon is a bit later than its competitors to the game of supporting bandwidth-hungry smartphones on its network. Verizon says that only 15% of its postpaid customers (customers with service contracts) owned smartphones at the end of 2009, compared to AT&T's 40%.

But increasingly, Verizon subscribers are using smarter phones that demand more broadband data service. Verizon says that its data service revenues grew from $12 billion in 2008 to $16 billion in 2009. The company's data service business will continue to grow as phones like the Motorola Droid (which reached market in November 2009) proliferate and begin taking a toll on network capacity.

In our recent tests, Verizon's average upload speeds showed little change from our results last spring, averaging 434 kbps. Nevertheless, we saw significant changes for Verizon in some cities: Average upload speeds decreased by 21% in San Diego, but increased by 27% in Denver and by 16% in New York City.

Verizon's network reliability scores in our recent tests were a mixed bag: Verizon's scores fell by 12% in both Baltimore and San Diego, compared with its scores in those two cities in our tests last spring. Yet in Chicago, Orlando, Phoenix, Portland, and San Francisco, the company's reliability scores increased by more than 10%.

Verizon promises its wireless customers typical download speeds of between 600 kbps and 1.4 mbps--and in the vast majority of our tests, it delivered. Upload speeds were a different story, however. Verizon promises upload speeds of from 500 to 800 kbps, yet in only one of our 13 cities (New Orleans) did we record an average upload speed of more than 500 kbps during our laptop-based tests.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Page 3
Page 3 of 7
8 simple ways to clean data with Excel
Shop Tech Products at Amazon