AT&T Now Fields the Fastest Mobile Network Thanks to Faux G Upgrades
For the last decade, our sister site PCMag.com has performed an annual driving survey of wireless network performance across the United States, called Fastest Mobile Networks. Every year, staff members crisscross the country, testing download and upload speeds, as well as signal strength and latency. For the last few years, Verizon has kept a lock on the fastest wireless ranking across most of the US, but that’s changed in 2019 thanks to recent upgrades to AT&T’s service.
AT&T has the fastest wireless network tested in four of the six regions that PCMag tests in. Verizon still wins the south-central US, while T-Mobile wins the southeast. Measured performance across the nation on all carriers is shown below:
PCMag’s full report runs to 37 pages. The publication tested by using four Samsung Galaxy S10s (chosen because they can access the latest network upgrades on all major carriers) that were driven across the country. Every two minutes, these devices contacted Ookla, owner of the popular Speedtest.net service (disclosure: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, ET’s parent company). Download speeds from 459 different servers across the US were tested, in over 60,000 test runs.
The Galaxy S10 supports LAA (Licensed Assisted Access), which uses Wi-Fi spectrum in crowded areas to boost performance. It also supports using Band 71 (extended range LTE), which is incredibly handy for T-Mobile owners. iPhones are again a bit more limited here; only the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR support this band.
PCMag’s point here is that while using the Galaxy S10 was clearly the right choice to provide maximum feature compatibility with all carriers, it also means your performance ranking on your own device could be quite different. In the past, for example, Apple has turned off advanced features that its Qualcomm modems supported because the Intel modems used in some of its devices didn’t support the same capability.
An extensive discussion of PCMag’s methodology, including the relative merits of crowdsourcing speed data versus driver testing, is available here.
AT&T’s Advantage: Faux G Evolution
AT&T’s network performance has increased substantially over 2018, thanks to LTE upgrades it has introduced in certain parts of the country. This is all to the good — improving network performance is what cellular providers are supposed to do.
What makes the situation with AT&T a bit different is that it chose to market its upgrades — which, again, are entirely based on existing LTE technology — as “5G Evolution” with a “5G E” icon. This distinction is untrue. The improvements AT&T has made to its network are real, but they’re entirely unrelated to 5G. As PCMag writes:
AT&T’s win this year comes from its 5G Evolution project, which enhances its network with better carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO antenna usage, and 256 QAM encoding. The other carriers have also done these things already, or in the case of Sprint, they’re working on them.
As always, do not treat 5G E as being any kind of actual 5G. Devices using the supposed 5G E network are standard LTE products, with no additional 5G features or benefits. Then again, considering 5G doesn’t currently provide any features or benefits, you aren’t really missing out on anything.
Having a phone with the latest modem in it matters quite a bit, particularly on AT&T’s network. iPhones with gigabit support (only the iPhone XS and XS Max) got an average of 47.08Mbps down on AT&T using Ookla’s speed test, compared with 40.56Mbps for the iPhone X. Of course, rural owners can’t expect anything like this sort of performance, no matter what device you use. Living in rural New York State, my own typically measured download performance off AT&T’s network with an iPhone SE is between 4-8Mbps.
The extensive report at PCMag contains details broken out by both city and geographic area. If you’re looking for information on which carrier has the best overall performance in your region, it’s absolutely worth a read.