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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Testing the Droid on Verizon

Our smartphone-based tests revealed some significant performance limitations of the Verizon network when we connected to it with a Motorola Droid.

In our winter tests involving 280 testing locations in 13 cities, the Droid rarely approached Verizon's promised upload speed of 500 kbps. Overall, the Droid delivered an average upload speed of just 116 kbps, the lowest average of any carrier/phone combo in our smartphone tests. And in numerous tests using the Droid, we recorded upload speeds of less than 75 kbps -- painfully slow if you're trying to send data of any size up through the network.

We also had trouble establishing a reliable connection between the Verizon network and the Droid during our tests. Verizon delivered an uninterrupted signal at reasonable speed in only 76% of our tests--far below the success rates of the 90+ percent that the other three carriers achieved.

Download speeds to the Droid, on the other hand, were quite good, at an average of 1075 kbps; that's not far from the upper end of the speed range that Verizon promised its customers, and ranks as the second-highest average download speed in our smartphone-based tests--behind only AT&T. The Droid connected at near- or above-1000 kbps speeds in every testing city but Phoenix, where it averaged just 696 kbps on the downlink.

Verizon says that PC World's assessment of its 3G performance doesn't tally with the results it sees in its own tests. Moreover, Verizon points out, speed isn't everything. As in its controversial "there's a map for that" commercials, Verizon likes to emphasize the breadth of its 3G coverage. "Consistency, coverage, and reliability -- the ability to make and keep connections, and perform the tasks they want to over our wireless network at 3G speeds in more places -- is what sets Verizon Wireless apart," says Verizon corporate communications director Thomas Pica in an e-mail message to PC World.

Verizon's 3G network does indeed have easily the greatest coverage area of any network (the company says that it covers more than 90% of the United States). So Verizon can still brag about that.

Sprint Continues Dependable Ways

During 2009, Sprint began to support millions of data-hungry Palm Pre and Android phones on its 3G network. Sprint says that 49% of the handsets it sold during the fourth quarter of 2009 were smartphones or other touchscreen devices, up from 41% from the quarter before. To accommodate the increased demand for wireless broadband that those devices bring, Sprint says that it spent $1.2 billion on its wireless network during 2009.

Overall, our research suggests that, in the areas we tested, those investments were just enough to enable the network to keep up with the increased demand.

Sprint's network reliability scores suggest that customers aren't having many problems getting on the network. Sprint ranked first in our reliability tests eight months ago, and it improved on that measure in our latest tests. Last spring we obtained a solid connection to the Sprint network in 90.5% of our tests; that figure increased to 94% in our most recent tests. The network scored perfect reliability marks in Baltimore, Portland, and San Diego, meaning that we enjoyed solid, uninterrupted connections at all 20 testing locations in each of those cities.

The Sprint network isn't as speedy as it is dependable, however. The network registered download speeds of 795 kbps on average across our 13 testing cities -- virtually unchanged from the 808 kbps it averaged in our tests last spring. Upload speeds also remained steady: Sprint uploads averaged 396 kbps in our winter tests, up slightly from the average of 371 kbps average we recorded last spring. These speeds are well within the ranges that Sprint promises its customers -- upload speeds of 350 to 500 kbps and download speeds of 600 to 1400 kbps.

Sprint's speed results suggest a tale of two kinds of cities -- ones where the company upgraded its network in the past eight months, and ones where mobile broadband demand is outpacing any increase in capacity. We saw speed increases of 20% or more in Baltimore, New Orleans, and San Diego; but in Denver, Orlando, and Seattle, average download speeds decreased by more than 20% in our tests. The net result: Sprint had the lowest average download speed across all our tests among the Big Four carriers.

One possible explanation, according to Novarum CTO Ken Biba, is that Sprint is expanding its service city by city, upgrading networks where mobile broadband demand is greatest. The cities where it hasn't yet upgraded its network are dragging down its 13-city average speed in our test results.

Sprint says that it has added about 11,000 cell sites to its 3G network since 2006, but it won't disclose how many of those sites debuted in the past year. "As customer demand grows, we have to continue to upgrade our network on a cell site by cell site basis," says Sprint networks vice president Bob Azzi. "I think we've been doing a good job of staying ahead of that growth."

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