Carrier and Network Profiles
AT&T is this year’s big surprise. The company has been doing fine, but not great since 2013. This year, though, it leapt forward with a massive increase in speed based on its poorly marketed 5G Evolution plan. 5G Evolution is really just gigabit LTE, the same cocktail of 4G technologies that the other carriers are installing.
AT&T is doing a good job of it, and it’s only getting started. We saw in Indianapolis, for instance, that AT&T has industry-leading speeds out to the internet, while speeds to a server within AT&T’s network were absolutely blistering. As the carrier further builds out connectivity, we expect to see speeds get even higher.
AT&T also may be benefitting from a dramatic loss in customers over the past few years. Millions of AT&T smartphone subscribers have been decamping to other carriers, replaced on AT&T’s network by smart cars and Internet of Things devices that use less data. That’s made its network less congested, and has probably helped contribute to its excellent results this year.
Sprint made a great leap forward between 2015 and 2016, becoming competitive for the first time in years. It couldn’t keep up the momentum this year—its average speeds stayed pretty much the same as in 2016, while other carriers advanced. That doesn’t match up with Sprint’s rhetoric, but I have some ideas why we’re seeing this result.
Sprint made the conscious decision to privilege downloads over uploads on its network, saying that because people mostly download, network speeds should reflect that. That argument would hold up better if Sprint showed spectacular download speeds, but its peak speeds only match, not exceed, the competition.
Sprint also struggled with severe variability within cities. The carrier relies on 2.5GHz signal for its best speeds, and that spectrum doesn’t travel well. The Galaxy S8’s High Performance User Equipment feature is supposed to extend 2.5GHz coverage, but we didn’t see that happening enough in our nationwide tests to fill in Sprint’s gaps.
A few moves later this year should help Sprint’s performance. The HTC U11 and Moto Z2 Force phones have 4×4 MIMO antennas for Sprint’s 2.5GHz spectrum, which will improve both coverage and speeds. And Sprint’s innovative “Magic Box” micro-cells could really improve the evenness of its network if they’re deployed broadly in major cities.
T-Mobile is the nation’s number two wireless network, no question about it. The carrier has improved by leaps and bounds in the past few years—first on speed, now on coverage.
T-Mobile’s download and upload speeds have been on a steady upward climb, aided by Gigabit LTE technologies we saw in the Galaxy S8. The carrier’s major improvement this year is in coverage. Just a few years ago, we had to disqualify T-Mobile in some rural areas because of an utter lack of 4G. Now, having built out its “extended range” 700MHz network, T-Mobile can actually duke it out on coverage with Verizon and AT&T in states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Utah.
T-Mobile’s coverage is only going to get better, especially in the west. The company just bought a huge amount of 600MHz spectrum nationwide, which is very good for covering rural areas. Much of it is currently occupied by TV stations, which have to vacate it within the next three years, but T-Mobile has said it’ll start building out in available areas this year. Of course, you’ll need a new phone to get that even better coverage—Galaxy S9, anyone?
Verizon doesn’t put out as many press releases and social blasts as T-Mobile does, but it’s matching T-Mobile upgrade for upgrade. The carrier has confirmed, often quietly, that it’s installing all three of the Gigabit LTE technologies across its network, and our tests bear that out. We’re seeing better results on the (gigabit) Galaxy S8 than the (non-gigabit) S7, and we think the gap between those two devices will grow.
Verizon has been building that speed on top of the nation’s most reliable network, with the broadest existing LTE coverage. This doesn’t make a huge difference in highly populated cities any longer, especially where T-Mobile has installed building-penetrating 700MHz LTE. But out in Wyoming, it’s clear that Verizon still has a rural advantage.
The next stop for Verizon is 5G. The carrier is taking a detour into home internet by launching a pre-spec home 5G system later this year. That will give Verizon the option to sell home-and-mobile internet bundles that may make its network an even easier choice for subscribers.
What About Other Brands?
We only tested the four major nationwide networks. There are smaller carriers out there we didn’t test, as well as many “virtual” operators, or MVNOs, that rent and resell capacity from the big four networks.
U.S. Cellular the fifth-place provider in the US, with five million customers. We don’t evaluate it because its primarily rural coverage isn’t compatible with our metro-centered testing.
Small regional providers also may offer great rates, such as C Spire in the Southeast; Cellcom in Wisconsin; Appalachian and Bluegrass in Kentucky; and Union and Viaero in Wyoming and Colorado. These are tiny, local companies that run their own networks and usually roam on one of the nationwide providers outside their coverage area.
For a rundown of virtual providers, check out The Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans You’ve Never Heard Of. These virtual networks can offer great value, but their data speeds are often limited by the contracts they’ve made with their host networks.