4G LTE Face-Off: Is AT&T’s New Network as Fast as Verizon’s?

 

AT&T has officially announced launched its 4G LTE network in 5 markets, and we’ve already taken it for a spin. The service is currently available in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Chicago, where we did our testing. Based on the results from our nationwide 4G showdown from earlier this summer, AT&T desperately needs the speed because its current HSPA+ network just doesn’t cut it. But is AT&T’s LTE service zippy enough to compete against Verizon’s ultra fast LTE network in the Windy City? Read on to find out.

How We Tested

We used the USBConnect Momentum 4G mobile broadband stick ($49.99 with a 2-year contract) connected to a Dell Inspiron 15 (M5030) and tested in three different locations in Chicago– downtown, the Lincoln Park neighborhood on the near northside, and the Mayfair neighborhood on the far northwest side. In all three locations, we had a strong signal with 4 to 5 bars  (out of 5) when we started testing and did not move the laptop while testing. 

We used the same series of tests we used for our nationwide 4G showdown. 

Website load times were measured by averaging the time it took for CNN.com, ESPN.com, Laptopmag.com, and NYTimes.com took to load in the Chrome browser on the laptop.

We used Speedtest.net for our synthetic upload and download tests. We averaged 10 test results for the Momentum. To get real-world benchmarks, we downloaded a 155MB file (OpenOffice.org) from OpenOffice.org. We also uploaded a 6.7MB Handbrake install file to our FTP server. If it took more than 7 minutes to perform either of these tasks, it was counted as a failed attempt.

User Experience

Setting up the AT&T USBConnect Momentum 4G was easy. We installed the AT&T Communication Manager from the included CD-ROM, plugged in the USB stick, and the software detected the device. We clicked “Connect” and immediately began watching the software’s usage meter add up the kilobytes we were using. The only plan currently available with the Momentum 4G is a $50 mothly data plan for that includes 5GB. There’s a $10 overage charge for every gigabyte over 5GB, so choose your bytes carefully.

We had no problem finding a strong signal in any of our testing locations. However, at every location we noticed that the signal bars would occasionally drop down to 2 or 3 bars even though we hadn’t touched the laptop or the USB stick. Though the signal seemed to fade, we didn’t experience a noticeable degradation in download or upload speed.

Performance

When we first tested AT&T’s 4G HSPA+ network last spring, it was the slowest of the four major carriers. Its average speeds across the country on Speedtest.net were 2.24 Mbps for downloads and 0.59 for uploads. In Chicago, the network returned speeds of 1.67 Mbps for download and 0.68 Mbps for upload. Compared to those numbers, the new LTE network is a huge improvement. On the same Speedtest.net test, the Momentum averaged 5.59 Mbps on the download and 0.98 Mbps on the upload, which puts AT&T squarely between Sprint and T-Mobile’s Chicago download averages of 4.67 Mbps and 5.93 Mbps, respectively.

While AT&T’s upload average of 0.98 Mbps is an improvement over the old network average of 0.68 Mbps, it’s still a little slower than Sprint (1.02 Mbps) and T-Mobile (1.21 Mbps). AT&T never even came close to Verizon’s Chicago scores of 18.93 Mbps down and 3.01 Mbps up.

AT&T also showed a huge improvement on the large file download test, downloading a copy of OpenOffice at an average of 5.26 Mbps, up from the network’s previous score of 1.85 Mbps. In fact, AT&T’s LTE network was the fastest on the large file download test. The only network that came close was Verizon, which averaged 3.76 Mbps in Chicago. The large file upload test also produced better results, with AT&T’s LTE averaging 0.87 Mbps. This is three times faster than its HSPA+ network, and faster than Sprint and T-Mobile. Only Verizon was faster with an average upload speed of 1.21 Mbps.

When it came to downloading websites, AT&T’s LTE once again showed marked improvement when compared against its 4G HSPA+ network. For Chicago, the average site load time dropped from 22.3 seconds to just 12.66 seconds. While this is a huge improvement, it’s still behind the average Verizon load time of 11.05 seconds and a hair behind Sprint’s 12.59-second average. 

Verdict

AT&T’s 4G LTE network is definitely much faster than its HSPA+ technology. If we were to conduct our 4G showdown again, AT&T would probably come in second (behind Verizon) or third (behind Verizon and T-Mobile). But Verizon is still very much on top both in terms of performance and its much wider coverge.

With T-Mobile’s future still in jeopardy and Sprint moving to LTE down the road, this faster network may be enough for mobile broadband addicts. However, a two-year contract on a network that’s still playing catch-up to everyone else is a big commitment.

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