School is almost out and soon students will bring home their report cards to show off–or hide under the couch. But how are the wireless carriers doing? Are they making the grade with their 4G networks or barely scraping by? With all the hype and outrageous claims out there, it’s not easy to get an honest evaluation. That’s where my annual report card comes in, which is based on lots of smartphone, tablet and data stick reviews on Laptopmag and my own experiences with multiple devices in multiple cities.
AT&T started rolling out 4G later than everyone else, but the carrier has moved from last to second place in less than a year among the big four providers. Why? Because it now has 4G LTE service in 35 markets and counting. We’re talking about home broadband-like speeds in the palm of your hand on phones like the HTC One X. AT&T is still way behind Verizon in terms of coverage, but we’ve seen faster speeds in areas where the two providers go head to head. Just beware of fake 4G speeds when you venture beyond LTE areas. There tends to be a steep drop.
If there’s one carrier that shows the most potential in the 4G wars, it’s Sprint, because it will offer unlimited data on its 4G LTE network. Unfortunately, Sprint is selling devices with 4G LTE in the name–like the HTC Evo 4G LTE and LG Viper 4G LTE–that are 3G only for now. And these phones also don’t connect to Sprint’s older 4G WiMax network. The carrier has just six 4G LTE markets going online this summer in cities like Baltimore and Kansas City, but everyone else is going to have to wait. An incomplete grade is kind of boring so I’m giving Sprint a D until it ramps things up.
T-Mobile claims to have the largest 4G network, and geographically it is pretty impressive. In a lot of places I log on I see fast speeds from phones like the HTC One S and Galaxy S II. This HSPA + network isn’t as fast as the 4G LTE goodness offered by bigger carriers—T-Mobile isn’t getting LTE until 2013—but the performance is good enough to download sites and apps at a brisk pace. Plus, T-Mobile’s plans are cheaper than AT&T and Verizon.
However, speeds can be be pretty inconsistent depending on your location. We also wish T-Mobile would stop comparing its 4G phone against the 3G iPhone 4S. We don’t need a test drive to know what’s faster.
At more than 258 markets and counting, Verizon is the undisputed champ when it comes to LTE coverage. Speeds in our tests have been strong. Devices like the Droid RAZR Maxx deliver speeds well within the carriers claimed range of 5 to 12 Mbps down and 2 to 5 Mbps up. Verizon’s speeds aren’t quite as fast as AT&T’s but there’s also a lot more people on Verizon’s network because it’s been around longer.
Our only real issue is that sometimes the 4G LTE connection on Verizon phones will stall when the device transitions from 4G to 3G and back again. In addition, AT&T’s HSPA+ network tends to be a faster fallback option when you’re outside of 4G LTE range, but Verizon’s 4G footprint should be just as large as its 3G one by the end of next year.