4G Report Card: Who’s Winning, Who’s Failing
Everywhere consumers turn these days there’s an ad for 4G. All the major carriers claim to offer blazing speeds. Verizon Wireless says it has the most advanced 4G network in America. T-Mobile says it has the largest 4G network. Sprint is focusing more on 4G devices. And AT&T is using humor to play up what you can do with 4G. So which carriers are living up to the hype and which ones are just blowing hot air? While it’s still somewhat early in the 4G race, I think it’s time for a reality check.
If you listen closely to the latest AT&T commercials, the carrier doesn’t make any claims about 4G speeds. They just say that AT&T “is getting faster.” Well, that’s nice. In our reviews of the Atrix 4G and Inspire 4G for the network, we deducted a half-star for each device because we didn’t see anything close to 4G speeds in New York and New Jersey. And AT&T couldn’t even tell us where 4G is available. So why is the carrier selling phones with 4G in the name?
You see, these HSPA+ phones need to be combined with Ethernet or fiber backhaul to offer faster performance, but that obviously wasn’t turned on in our neck of the woods. In fact, thus far these 4G phones have delivered even slower upload speeds than the AT&T 3G iPhone. According to AT&T, it is working to turn on so-called HSUPA capability for faster uploads, and that two thirds of its network will be enhanced with backhaul by the end of the year. However, that doesn’t explain or excuse why the company is misleading customers in its marketing.
AT&T says it will be rolling out an even faster 4G network using LTE technology (which Verizon Wireless started deploying in December) by the middle of the year. Let’s hope the carrier handles that launch a lot better, telling customers not only how fast the speeds will be but where you can get them.
Sprint was first out of the gate with 4G, and now it offers Mobile WiMax service (through a partnership with Clearwire) in 71 markets in 28 states. Even though the carrier launched way back in 2008 in Baltimore, it took Sprint until late last year to light up such large cities as New York and San Francisco. On the plus side, Sprint has always been transparent about the speeds users should expect, claiming 3 to 6 Mbps downloads and 1 Mbps uploads.
In our testing of multiple devices, Sprint has offered the second fastest speeds behind Verizon Wireless, ranging between 3 and 9 Mbps on the download in our latest testing and staying true to the carrier’s 1 Mbps upload claims. The provider also has a solid selection of 4G gear, including three great phones (the HTC EVO 4G, Epic 4G, and the EVO Shift 4G), mobile hotspot devices (such as the just-announced Overdrive Pro), and USB modems. 4G Tablets are on the way. Sprint also gets points for offering truly unlimited service with its data plans on 4G.
Sprint’s biggest problem is that the industry is moving toward LTE technology, but according to recent rumors the company is already starting to make the transition—even if it might take two to three years to complete.
The good news is that T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network has a very large footprint, with the carrier claiming to cover more than 100 metro areas and 200 million people. But if I see another press release from T-Mobile with the words “theoretical peak download speeds,” I think I might jump out the nearest window.
Consumers could care less about how fast something is theoretically. You should tell them the speeds they should expect in the real world. So I’m happy to report that T-Mobile is getting the message. In the latest release announcing new 4G markets, the provider said that download speeds approach 5 Mbps “in some cities” and peak speeds of 12 Mbps. How about an average speed? And what about upload speeds? And why would performance vary that much from city to city?
Another complicating factor for T-Mobile is that it keeps upgrading its HSPA+ network to support faster theoretical speeds, but only new hardware can take full advantage of it. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S 4G is capable of theoretical max downloads of 21 Mbps, but the slightly older myTouch 4G can only do 14.4 Mbps. In our tests of the Galaxy, we saw a high of 5.5 Mbps on the downlink and 1.7 on the uplink. The myTouch 4G could only muster 1.5 Mbps downloads and 1.3 Mbps uploads, which isn’t even a strong 3G speed. That puts T-Mobile, at least for now, in third place behind Verizon Wireless and Sprint.
Although Verizon Wireless’ network is nearly as broad as Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s— with 38 cities covering 100 million people so far—the carrier has been up front with its speed claims since its LTE network launched in December. In fact, in our tests thus far the 4G gear we’ve tested has exceeded those claims (5 to 12 Mbps downloads and 2 to 5 Mbps uploads). We saw upwards of 19 Mbps downloads on our best result for the new HTC Thunderbolt phone, and we routinely saw 14 Mbps when using the device as a mobile hotspot.
While this is the first 4G smart phone for Verizon Wireless, the carrier announced 10 devices at CES, including connection cards, phones, and tablets. So we expect Verizon’s lineup of gear to catch up to Sprint and T-Mobile by the summer.
What concerns me about Verizon is its pricing. For now, the Thunderbolt offers unlimited 4G data, but Verizon Wireless has said that it will roll out tiered plans later this year (just as it already has with tablets). I also wonder whether the Thunderbolt’s lackluster battery life in our review is a sign that LTE devices are more power-hungry than competing technologies.
Overall, though, I think Verizon’s 4G network is the strongest, and it won’t be long before the carrier matches its first-class performance with widespread coverage. Honesty also never hurts.