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 HTC Hero on Sprint

The speeds we saw in our smartphone-based tests of the Sprint network (using an HTC Hero) seem to corroborate Azzi's claim: Though the capacity of Sprint's network may vary from city to city, the performance that smartphone users see on the ground is fairly consistent across all 13 of our 13 testing cities. Download speeds for the Sprint/Hero combo consistently fell within the range of 700 kbps to 1000 kbps in most testing cities, yielding an overall download speed average of 851 kbps--significantly slower than the average connection speeds of 1000 kbps or better achieved by the AT&T/iPhone and Verizon/Droid combos. Sprint delivered download speeds in excess of 1000 kbps to the Hero in just 30% of our testing locations.

Upload speeds, while not impressive, were again consistent. We recorded upload speeds in the range of 100 kbps to 200 kbps--for an average of 145 kbps--across the Sprint network; those figures are in line with the uplink performance of the other phones in our study. As for reliability, Sprint established a solid connection with the Hero in 92% of our tests, the second-best reliability score in our smartphone-based tests.

Azzi says his company has seen a "double-digit" growth in mobile broadband usage via devices like the Hero over the past year, but he welcomes the increasing demand. "We want people to use as much data as they want, to use it in any way they want to use it; and we want make sure they can use any apps that they want to use," Azzi says. "My job is to stay just ahead of that."

T-Mobile: Playing with the big boys

In our tests, T-Mobile's 3G network delivered download speeds that matched Verizon's and Sprint's, and it clocked surprisingly fast speeds in New York City. Averaged across our 13 testing cities, the T-Mobile 3G network showed an average download speed of 868 kbps--very close to Verizon's average speed of 877 kbps--and delivered an average upload speed of 311 kbps. T-Mobile tells its subscribers that they can expect upload speeds in the "hundreds of kbps" and download speeds of up to 1 mbps.

T-Mobile clocked its fastest average download speeds in Chicago (1047 kbps), Phoenix (1201 kbps), Portland (1090 kbps), and New York City (1220 kbps). During one of our 1-minute speed tests in Manhattan, the T-Mobile network turned in an average download speed of 3 mbps, and registered burst speeds of up to 3.5 mbps. Speeds in the vicinity of 3 mbps are typically seen only in 4G networks.

T-Mobile's network didn't perform as well in other cities where we tested. The network reached its performance nadir in New Orleans, where we measured an average download speed of 570 kbps and an average upload speed of 181 kbps. Transfer speeds were so slow in tests conducted in the northern part of the city that the network was virtually unusable, according to Novarum's Biba, who performed the tests.

Slow upload speeds were a recurring theme of our test results for the T-Mobile 3G network. T-Mobile registered average upload speeds of less than 300 kbps in 8 of our 13 testing cities. In upload speeds T-Mobile ranked lowest among the Big Four in 11 of the 13 cities.

Testing the HTC G1 on T-Mobile

In our smartphone-based tests, T-Mobile's network connected with the HTC G1 reliably, but it didn't support especially fast connection speeds to the device. We successfully established a solid connection with the T-Mobile/G1 combo in 93% of our attempts--the best reliability score of the four carrier/smartphone combos in our tests.

But the T-Mobile network delivered an average download speed to the G1 of only 719 kbps in our 13 testing cities -- the slowest average in our smartphone test -- and it connected at speeds exceeding 1000 kbps at only 13% of our testing locations. Upload speeds were lackluster, too: The G1 posted an average upload speed of 134 kbps in our tests, the second lowest average in our smartphone study.

T-Mobile was the first carrier in the United States to support new Android phones like the G1, and it is the only 3G network available for the high-profile HTC/Google Nexus One. As Android phones continue to gain mainstream popularity, T-Mobile's network will have to support more and more wireless data use. T-Mobile says that monthly demand for mobile its broadband increased by 275% during 2009. At last report (October 2009), T-Mobile had 2.8 million 3G smartphones connected to its network.

Compared with A&T and Verizon, T-Mobile's wireless business is small, but the reach of its 3G network grew rapidly in 2009. At the beginning of that year, about 100 million people lived in areas where T-Mobile provides 3G service; today, the network is available to more than 200 million people in 271 U.S. cities, the company says. In January, T-Mobile announced that, like AT&T, it had finished converting its 3G network to the faster HSPA 7.2 technology, as promised.

The 3G network may be growing fast, but T-Mobile's subscriber count seems to be increasing at a more leisurely pace. The company reported that it 33.4 million wireless subscribers at the end of the third quarter of 2009, up marginally from the 32.8 million it reported at the end of 2008.

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