State of Mobile Networks: USA March 2016

by: Rob TriggsMarch 3, 2016
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OpenSignal Speed Test

The US was one of the first countries to adopt the faster LTE networking standard back in 2010 and national carriers have continued to expand coverage over the vast country since then. However, over the past few years the US has fallen behind a number of other countries which adopted LTE later on, particularly when it comes to speeds. But perhaps one of the country’s big four carriers is better than the others or the national average?

Using data compiled from 181,927 OpenSignal users in the final quarter of 2015, we can see exactly which carriers are offering the fastest speeds and the best coverage for both 3G and 4G networks right across the USA. Let’s dive on in.

Data speeds

We’ll start with the statistics that everyone is probably most keenly aware of, data speeds. As we have seen from previous studies, LTE is now a common networking technology around the world, and despite being one of the earliest adopters, the USA has falling considerably far behind other nations when it comes to providing the fastest speeds.

The average 4G network speed in the US comes in at 9.9 Mbps, behind the global download average of 13.5 Mbps. If that isn’t bad enough, data from last year revealed that the top three countries for 4G LTE speeds were New Zealand, Singapore and Romania, with download speeds of 36, 33 and 30 Mbps respectively. Clearly the USA is a bit behind.

4G LTE evolutionSee also: Fastest LTE networks and countries revealed73

Looking more specifically at the USA’s four major carriers, that’s AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, we can see that the latter two are notably out in front when it comes to speeds. T-Mobile edges just ahead with a 12.3 Mbps average 4G network speed, while Verizon follows closely with 12.0 Mbps. So neither of the two are too far behind the global average. AT&T follows some way behind in third with 7.9 Mbps and Sprint languishes in last with just 6.6 Mbps on average.

The problem here for US network operators is that they are dealing with much more limited amounts of spectrum than many other countries. Some of the space is still tied up in 2G networks used for voice calls and there simply aren’t enough bands available to make wide use of LTE-Advanced carrier aggregation technologies that are available in other countries. The Federal Communications Commission plans to auction off a major chunk of the broadcast TV airwaves for mobile broadband use, but this might not even be made available for 4G networks and probably not any time soon either.

Things are a little different when it comes to 3G speeds though, with T-Mobile coming out as a very clear winner. The carrier managed an average 3G download speed across the US of 3.5 Mbps, following not that closely by AT&T with a speed of around 2.2 Mbps. Disappointingly, neither Sprint nor Verizon can break past the 0.66 Mbps boundary, making them considerably slower networks if you stray outside of 4G coverage.

US Carrier Data Speeds Q4 2015

Of course, data coverage is the best in built up cities and there’s also information available about which places have the fastest coverage. The winner is Miami with an average speed of 18.9Mbps on Verizon, followed very closely by Chicago at 18.8Mbps. New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta also score well, with speeds averaging above 16Mbps.

When it comes to the fastest network in the USA, the crown has to go to T-Mobile this time around. Not only is the company right at the top with its average 4G speeds, but roaming off into 3G territory will still provide a nippier internet connection than any of the other three big players.

Latency

Sticking with speed for a second, the other half of improved network data speeds is latency. Latency defines how quickly a network or website can actually respond to an action over the web, which is typically quite important for things like online gaming, video calls, and voice over LTE (VoLTE). Essentially, lower latency means better quality calls over an LTE network.

When it comes to 3G coverage, the four major carriers manage a latency between 110 and 131 milliseconds, with T-Mobile performing the best on average. Moving over to 4G almost cuts the latency time in half, with speeds falling below 85ms.

Interestingly, Sprint offers the best typical 4G latency at just 66ms, but is the only carrier that doesn’t currently offer VoLTE. Sprint is followed by Verizon on 74ms, T-Mobile at 77ms, and AT&T in last with a 85ms average. However, these scores are all relatively close and most users probably won’t notice much of a difference when loading up web pages.

Network coverage

The final pieces of data covered by the report reveals which US networks offer the best coverage. Despite falling behind other countries in terms of LTE data speeds, the US still ranks among the top 10 in the world for LTE coverage, an impressive feat for such a large country.

While all of the carriers do a pretty good job at covering most people with 4G LTE coverage a lot of the time, Verizon pulls slight ahead here with a coverage score of 87 percent. AT&T and T-Mobile follow on 83 and 81 percent respectively, while Sprint falls notably behind with a score of 70 percent. T-Mobile has really closed the gap on the leader Verizon, and it’s quite a close call between the three leaders.

An important point to note is that OpenSignal’s figures are based on the proportion of time that LTE subscribers have coverage available to them, rather than calculating the result based on geographical areas covered.

USA 4G LTE coverage all carriers

4G LTE coverage has now expanded over much of the USA.

OpenSignal

It’s tough to call an absolute best network from these results, as there are a couple of pros and cons to each of the networks. Smartphone owners still using older 3G handsets will certainly be better off on T-Mobile’s network. However, it appears that both T-Mobile and Verizon offer the best overall combination of 4G LTE speeds and coverage.

Does your own experience with the USA’s big four match up with OpenSignal’s result?

  • Mark Kendrick

    What matters most is how the network operates where you use your phone the most. For me AT&T beats VZW and blows T-Mobile away.

    • yankeesusa

      Blows tmobile away? LOL. It might have better coverage in your area but if it was a city in which both att and tmobile had coverage then the competition would be fierce with tmobile most likely being on top. Luckily in my town i have all 4 and tmobile and verizon are on top. Att is decent but lags in data speed. Got rid of them for that reason.

      • Mark Kendrick

        In my area Tmobile’s speeds for some reason weren’t very good and their coverage was inferior, that’s why I left them. My data speeds on AT&T are far better and much more consistent. That’s why I initially stated what matters is how it works in your particular area of usage.

        • yankeesusa

          Agreed

        • Hiran

          How is Verizon in your area?

          • Mark Kendrick

            Verizon has good coverage but I get better speeds, similar coverage to VZW and have rollover data. For me it would have to be either VZW or AT&T for the time being. I really like Tmobile’s customer service and features so when band 12 gets to my area I’ll probably give them another go.

          • n900mixalot

            Same exact story where I am. T-Mobile isn’t even an option.

  • smokebomb

    So, U.S. mobile companies still suck compared to the rest of the world. There’s no story here.

    • balcobomber25

      Not to mention they are more expensive than most parts of the world.

  • DW Duck

    Where I live I have the top 5 carriers, but T-Mobile blows them all away. I’m just waiting now on the band 12. That will be great.

    • yankeesusa

      yea, i agree. I had verizon alongside sprint when i worked for verizon and sprint was actually faster back then. Then evdo kept upgrading and sprint stayed behind. I still stayed with sprint up until 2 or 3 years ago when i tried att and then tried tmobile. T-mobile had just gotten lte in the area and it was just amazing. Never had speeds like that. And until now att still gets around 10 to 12 average while tmobile gets 30. So i stick with tmobile.

  • yankeesusa

    Great article.

  • Hiran

    I am on Verizon and my parents and I have been on Verizon for 16+years and still with them. In Detroit (Metro-Area), Verizon is excellent in Detroit, Livonia, ALL COLLEGE CAMPUSES, and more. On my college Campus (Schoolcraft) Verizon get 200MBPS (Download) and 175MBPS (Upload). I am transferring to a 4 year college in Detroit, and Verizon gets a whopping 150MBPS download Upload is 100MBPS. My Dad was on Sprint (work-phone) from 1990-2006, he didn’t like it bad coverage and call quality horrible. Even though Verizon is a bit expensive. My mom and I would rather be on Verizon with MORE NETWORK OPPORTUNITIES and COVERAGE, than Switch to a cheap carrier like T-Mobile or Sprint.
    Beware that T-Mobile could BE A RISK, it costed my mom’s friend her job. Every conference call, she had dropped and cant connect. Her boss was so frustrated and fed up with her and T-Mobile that she got fired and then got rehired and recommended Verizon.

    • DynamikD

      You do not get speeds ANYWHERE near 200 mbps down on a cell phone. Stop with the lies.

      • Hiran

        My college campus

        • Dominick Wheeler

          Also, TMobile has both VoLTE and WiFi calling, the latter of which STILL isn’t offered by Verizon save for 2 phones, so that argument doesn’t stack up anymore. Sprint is still garbage, though lol

      • Dominick Wheeler

        The best I’ve ever had was 78 down and 35 up

      • EE

        Actually, I can get 147mbps on EE in the UK. Just step outside of my house to get full bars and yup, 147mb. In fact, it’s limited to 150mbps. It can get faster than that using 20MHz 1800+2600 CA.

    • FlipJumpman

      So your blaming tmobile for her getting fired. The shit people come up with… Lol

    • Neel Gupta

      I think you are mixing up wireless with wired connection.

  • Michel Perrault

    You can clearly see where the deserts are, huh?

    • Hiran

      How is Verizon in your area or deserts?

  • The Doctor

    How did T-Mobile get so much 4G LTE coverage so fast?

    • Jeffrey

      They upgraded their existing towers. Places that would get 2g/3g now get lte coverage by replacing equipment in the tower.

      • Choda Boy

        Didn’t Sprint do the same thing?

    • Karly Johnston

      They are converting all the 2G to LTE.

    • FlipJumpman

      They care more.

  • Teo Jia Rong

    I’m just lucky that Singapore have very good mobile coverage throughout the whole island, with consistent 4G speeds of around 60 down 55 up from where I’m right now :)

  • Dominick Wheeler

    Sprint still doesn’t offer VoLTE? It’s 2016, not 2006, right? Wew lads. Also, nice to see TMo bridging the gap between the big 2. They’re already fast, now just a little more reliable in the coverage area and they’ll overtake ATT. That should happen by the end of the year.

    • Hiran

      How is Verizon in your area?

      • Dominick Wheeler

        I live in Las Vegas, so tons of towers but still subpar coverage, from friends/ colleague’s experience. No better than TMobile or ATT (Sprint is pretty bad).

        • Hiran

          What do you mean by subpar coverage. Is Verizon #1 in Las Vegas and how is the speeds and call quality.

        • n900mixalot

          INO Vegas T-Mobile is acceptable but at the edges or just outside it is pure garbage.

  • Emmet

    Too bad T-Mobile sucks where I live…and Verizon is expensive so I’ll just stick with my ATT phone.

  • Claudiu Visan

    Tested right now in Romania.

    • James Childress

      Dammit! That is several times better than the landline ISP offers where I am. Supposedly they are upgrading this year to offer similar speeds. I am not holding my breath.

  • Buell

    I’m very pleased with what I get from Verizon where I am.

  • Buell

    I’m very pleased with what I get from Verizon where I am. I will say American companies are crazy with their prices and controls though.

  • Falenone

    Why is the east more covered than west? Just curious

    • sachouba

      Because it was discovered way before.

    • James Childress

      Population density. The carriers ignore the more rural areas focusing only on major roads and cities.

    • balcobomber25

      Most of that land in the west that is white on that map is very rural areas with fewer customers.

  • Exare

    ATT is bogus where I live. It constantly looses GPS signal and there are certain roads that just don’t have any signal at all. I drop calls all the time and when I wake my phone up from sleep half the time it’s disconnected from the data network. Then I have to wait a good deal of time for it to connect or reboot the phone. Now this could be my phone, but these issues have been happening since day 1 of my purchase (Nexus 5) I can’t imagine so. My Galaxy Nexus on Verizon had better and more consistent coverage.

    T-Mobile is interesting. They just recently purchased a huge chunk of low frequency spectrum that reaches well out to where Verizon and ATT do in the boonies where I live. Areas that you’d never have signal with a T-Mobile device now have full bars. Unfortunately, to make use of this spectrum you need certain phones manufactured after fall of 2015 and sold at T-Mobile because special radios are needed to pick up the new signal. Older phones just won’t work. But that’s forward thinking! Pretty soon I might be switching to T-Mobile for the cheaper prices, faster speeds, and no data cap. I just need to do some more research on what phones work (I need my Nexus or Sony flagships please!), how fast those phones get their OS updates, and how reliable the network is.

    • FlipJumpman

      You can try to find a Nexus 6 for 250-300 which has band 12 for tmobile. Also recommend getting a Lte cellspot for your house from them for free. It’s awesome having basically fullbars at home 100% of the time.

      • Exare

        Oooo, this sounds like a good idea. Thanks for the tip!

        • FlipJumpman

          Yeah, once you use Nexus devices it’s really hard to go back to others. I think with Android N and all its features like multi-window, picture in picture for videos, doze mode right when the screen turns off etc is really going level stock Android that there will be no need to even flash ROMs in the future.
          Good luck!

  • James Childress

    In my Montana small town we have 4G through AT&T. Speeds are 8/1mbps with latency between 100-200 ms. Just good enough for gaming on when the local ISP goes down. Coverage in Montana as seen on the map, is limited to major highways/interstates with only a few pockets not served due to geography getting in the way or the lack of buildout. Still, they could do better with more repeaters in the small valleys between cities to cover breaks on the roads. I-90 through the Cascades for example has near 100% cell/data coverage despite the challenges of getting signal around all the mountains so I know it is possible to improve the coverage here.

  • Karly Johnston

    The 3G speeds I get on Tmob are faster than the other carriers 4G.

  • Andrew White

    With TD-LTE advanced (2300Mhz) carrier aggregation where I live in Australia a download speed of 84Mb/s was achieved on a work day.
    This is possible only in selected cities and only in certain areas within those cities.
    Just over 50Mb/s is more the norm. Didn’t take much notice of the latency figure.

  • Vinicius Errero

    Brazil. And yes, I use iOS too

  • FlipJumpman

    I’m lucky enough to live in an area that basically gets good coverage from all carriers. Left att a little over a year ago for tmobile and couldn’t be happier!

  • Neel Gupta

    5 Mbps is like the average(mean) 4G speed in India(Airtel), though connection may not be so stable.
    Mode(in Statistics) speed would be 2 Mbps