Verizon's new XLTE network is as fast as lightning, but that's not why it wins the award for America's fastest mobile network this year. In a nation where we now have four LTE networks battling for dominance, Verizon Wireless takes the crown by being the reliability and coverage king.
For our fifth year of Fastest Mobile Networks testing, we brought in a slew of new partners and asked our readers to run their own tests, supplementing our 80,000 cycles of drive testing over 30 cities and thousands of miles. We found that AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, at least, are mostly over the LTE hump in major cities. Sprint still has a way to go before it delivers a truly competitive experience.
T-Mobile provided the year's big surprise, with a powerful showing where it won half of our cities outright. The carrier's performance in the nation's biggest cities was reliably great, although we saw it decline in Indiana, Ohio, and North Carolina where the carrier is spectrum-constrained.
But when we left those major metros, often T-Mobile's LTE network would completely drop off the map. Our out-of-metro results, as we drove past cities like Kalamazoo, Macon, and Yuma, showed very little availability of either Sprint's or T-Mobile's LTE networks, while Verizon's system stayed admirably strong.
And while AT&T won last year's prize, this year Verizon really stepped things up with XLTE. That's Verizon's term for LTE running on AWS 1700MHz spectrum as well as its previously used 700MHz spectrum. The 700MHz gives Verizon terrific rural coverage, and XLTE boosts speeds in major cities like New York and Boston in a huge way.
Why Drive Tests Matter
We put our cars on the road because drive testing is the only way to separate network performance from device performance. This year, we chose LG G2 phones to test LTE, because they're available on all the major carriers and support all of the fastest networks. We drove thousands of miles in three C-MAX hybrid cars supplied by Ford.
When we compared our drive testing with our crowdsourced results, we saw dramatic differences in performance between phones, especially between older and newer devices that support different strains of LTE.
Testing multiple networks in the same place at the same time also matters. Speed tests are generally slower indoors, so if you test one network inside and one outside, it may not be a fair fight. By driving around with multiple devices, you get the best comparison.
Where We Tested
For the first time, all four wireless carriers had LTE in almost all 30 of our test cities, with the exception being Sprint in Denver. We drove to the same 30 major cities we traveled to in 2012 (and with only one change from 2013), evenly spread across six regions of the country.
Outside our 30 cities, our drivers traveled on a mix of interstate and U.S. highways and stopped in smaller cities along the way. The data we collected contributed to a "suburban/rural" score for each of our six regions.
Sensorly provided us with more than 80,000 tests performed everywhere from Aberdeen, SD to Zanesville, OH. Since almost all of those tests were on Sprint and T-Mobile—we just didn't attract AT&T or Verizon users, apparently—we couldn't use those tests to compare carriers, but we pulled out some really interesting comparisons between the hundreds of devices Sensorly's users tested with. Most importantly, we discovered that if you're a Sprint or Verizon user, you probably need a new phone.
What We Tested
This is mobile networks, so we're focusing on data speed and reliability. We didn't test call quality, dropped calls, or coverage. For the best assessment of voice call quality according to our readers, check out our annual Reader's Choice awards results. To get a picture of wireless coverage near you, go to Sensorly's website and you'll see crowdsourced coverage maps for all the major U.S. mobile carriers, enhanced with the data from our test drives.
Mobile networks are constantly changing, and almost always for the better. And because speeds vary based on tower location, network load, device used, and even the weather, we can't predict performance in a specific location; rather, we're giving a snapshot of a few days' worth of usage in several locations across a metro area. Hit the next page for our regional and national winners.
PCMag.com's lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, has reviewed hundreds of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets in more than 9 years with PCMag. He's the head of our Fastest Mobile Networks project, one of the hosts of the daily PCMag Live Web show and speaks frequently in mass media on cell-phone-related issues. His commentary has appeared on ABC, the BBC, the CBC, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, and in newspapers from San Antonio, Texas to Edmonton, Alberta. Segan is also a multiple award-winning travel writer, having contributed... More »
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