Is Verizon Squandering Its 4G Lead?

You might think that a combined AT&T and T-Mobile is Verizon Wireless’ biggest nemesis. You’d be wrong. The enemy is within. I’ve been testing the heck out of the carrier’s 4G LTE network, and its blazing speeds are practically going to waste. Why? The devices I’ve been using drop connections so often–mostly in a moving vehicle–that slower but steadier 3G speeds actually look inviting.

Verizon Wireless customers were understandably upset late last month when the carrier suffered a 4G outage that lasted more than 24 hours. Hot-selling phones such as the HTC Thunderbolt wouldn’t connect to the web at all during that time. Verizon eventually restored service, but didn’t provide many details other than its engineers had “quickly identified the issue and solved it.”

That’s nice, but this fix didn’t address the larger issue of network reliability. For our upcoming national 4G test drive, I’ve been using two Verizon 4G LTE USB modems during my commute between Central New Jersey and New York, and I’ve been frustrated by the sheer number of dropped connections. When using 3G-only modems or hotshots on this route over the years, I’ve experienced maybe one or two disconnects in both directions over a couple of days. With the latest 4G LTE gear I’m seeing four or five drops daily—in one direction.

Sometimes, Verizon’s connection manager software for Windows will say that the modem is dormant even though I’m trying to load a web page. And that’s with a solid 4G signal. Other times, the modems will simply disappear from the connection manager, making it seem as if nothing is connected to the laptop. The 4G modems seem to get really tripped up as I move from 4G to 3G coverage areas. Disconnecting and reconnecting will often solve these issues, but it shouldn’t come to that.

As we increasingly do more work in the cloud (e-mail, Google Docs, blogging), being offline is simply not an option. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve actually lost work or had an instant messaging chat cut off. Having the most advanced 4G network in the world doesn’t mean anything if you can’t access it.

According to the message boards on Verizon’s site, I’m definitely not alone. Lots of people have logged complaints about dropped connections, even after upgrading to the latest firmware. It looks like Verizon’s reps are doing the best they can to address users’ issues, but it’s telling that a little “Solved” checkmark appears only next to only some of the threads. Verizon is dealing with what looks like a very complicated roll-out.

I’ve had better experiences with Verizon’s 4G phones thus far because they seem to do a better job than the USB modems at more quickly switching between 3G and 4G networks. However, Verizon postponed the launch of the Samsung Droid Charge for a reason. The pricey $299 smartphone was supposed to go on sale April 28th, but the carrier pushed it back to May 14th. My guess is that the Verizon wanted to ensure that if another 4G outage does occur, the Charge would automatically connect to 3G instead of nothing.

To be clear, I love the speeds 4G LTE offers, which is why I put Verizon Wireless ahead of other carriers in my recent 4G Report Card. In fact, it’s so fast that when I’m uploading large files I use a Verizon 4G modem instead of a Wi-Fi connection. But the service provider needs to stabilize the performance of its devices and—at the very least—do a better job of letting users manually switch to 3G only when 4G starts acting up. With reports that AT&T will launch its 4G LTE network as soon as next month, Verizon will need to learn quickly from these hiccups or risk squandering its six-month lead. The clock is ticking.

Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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  1. eli Says:

    i returned mifi and cancelled the plan.
    IT SUX

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