Chicago takes top spot in mobile performance ranking

L.A. ranks 111th, with New York 98th in RootMetrics tests

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Chicago is the U.S. city with the best overall mobile performance ranking, according to tens of thousands of voice and data tests conducted in 125 cities by RootMetrics.

The metropolis dubbed the Windy City originally got its nickname in the 1890s because of its reputation for bragging, and not just because of the fierce winter winds blowing off Lake Michigan.

And so, it seems the bragging is bound to continue.

"Chicago was the only city with top ranking in multiple performance categories," RootMetrics reported in its online analysis posted on Monday.

RootMetrics used off-the-shelf wireless phones both in outdoors and indoors locations to measure factors such as overall performance, reliability of connections, data speed, data connection capability, calls and texting. The networks of all four national carriers, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, were tested.

While Chicago is the third-largest U.S. city, with a population of 8.6 million, its top overall ranking outstripped the nation's biggest city, New York. The Big Apple, with its 18.4 million population, ranked 98th overall in RootMetrics' measurements. The nation's second-largest city, Los Angeles, with a 12.2 million population, finished in 111th place in the tests, well behind many cities a fraction of its size.

Root Metrics didn't come up with a definitive reason for why the nation's two largest cities ranked so poorly. Both cities, as well as Chicago, encompass enormous amounts of land and also have dense urban cores with soaring skyscrapers. These topographies are challenging for cellular signal, which need to stretch long distances and reach inside large office buildings constructed of steel and concrete that tend to impede most signals.

"In the last six months to a year, there's been a lot of press about all the carriers investing quite a bit of money into the Chicago market, especially Sprint, so the folks in Chicago are probably seeing the benefit," said Julie Dey, vice president of marketing at RootMetrics, in an interview. "We don't have the expertise to say why these rankings came out this way. New York and L.A. are at the middle to the bottom, which is surprising."

All the carriers have upgraded to LTE networks in the past two years, which has required installing thousands more cell towers and antennas, as well a fiber optic cable backhaul lines and new switches inside new switching cabinets.

Data speeds were good enough to put Chicago in third place, while New York ranked 86th and L.A. ranked 79th on that measure.

RootMetrics has performed independent testing for two years in 125 cities. In coming weeks, RootMetrics plans to show, for the first time, how well each of the major carriers performed in each city.

Among the other surprises in the report, Oklahoma City finished second overall behind Chicago, even though it has one-tenthth the population. The smallest city of the 125, Rockford, Ill., with a population just under 300,000, finished fourth overall.

In theory, it should be possible for a carrier to serve a smaller city better, but that doesn't explain why Chicago did so well or why Detroit came in seventh overall and Atlanta finished 10th.

Some of the differences in rankings are small and additional network upgrades in coming months could significantly change the network performance and ranking for a city when RootMetrics does its next round of tests in six months.

The differences between cities on texting capability are not as large as the differences in data speed, Dey said. "As we continue to run these measures, it will be interesting to see if the differentials change," she said.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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