New speed test data from Ookla shows that both Verizon and ATT have boosted mobile network performance in the past 12 months, though our absolute world ranking compared with other nations remains mired in the middle of the pack. In Q1 2019, the United States ranked 40th in the world for mean wireless download speeds (between Spain and Saudi Arabia). In uploads we fared much worse, coming in at 94th (between Angola and Poland).
Ookla bases its speedtest information and comparisons by gathering data from 2.7M unique mobile user devices used to perform over 11.5M total benchmarks. This type of testing is distinct from the driving tests that our sister publication PCMag also performs, but their results largely echo what Ookla is reporting. (Note: As a matter of full disclosure, both Ookla and PCMag are owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns ExtremeTech.)
Performance across the entire United States increased by 24 percent in download and 13 percent in upload, provided you live in a major metropolitan area and could benefit from these improvements in the first place. I make this distinction — Ookla doesn’t — because, if you live in a rural area in the United States, the rate at which your performance improves may depend on when the ancient equipment in the local cell tower needs to be replaced and not much more. According to Speedtest.net, as of 7/8/2019, my iPhone SE is capable of 6.7Mbps down, 3.31Mbps up on ATT’s LTE network. That’s about normal for where I live. It’s also 1/5 and roughly 1/3 of median US wireless performance.
Both the degree of improvement you see year-on-year (if any) and when those improvements arrive are both tied to how urban your home is. If you happen to live in areas where ATT hasn’t yet deployed LTE, for example, improved results like the ones Ookla is trumpeting mean nothing to your quality of service.
I bring this up, not to dump on Ookla’s efforts, but to illustrate that reports like this really only have validity if you live in the areas they describe. This metric is referred to as “LTE Accessibility” in the first graph. Verizon users have access to LTE 95.9 percent of the time and are only without service 3.3 percent of the time. ATT has a much lower rate of LTE access and a higher rate of “No coverage.”
No single person’s experience is the same as a broad report like this, but these findings do echo what I found to be true when I had ATT and lived in an even more rural area than I currently occupy. In 2014, my old stomping grounds were still using HSPA+. Five years later, that hasn’t changed. With a new wave of 5G devices certain to start shipping in 2020, cell providers are going to start banging on the “Upgrade your life with faster wireless!” drum. Never forget to check and make certain that your home address (or wherever you spend the bulk of your time) will actually benefit from the upgrade.
As for the “Acceptable Speed Ratio,” ASR measures what percentages of a cell carriers’ connections are 5Mbps or above, to allow for HD video streaming. Verizon scores the best here, at 87.3 percent, but most of the other firms are closely clustered — T-Mobile is at 86.9 percent, and ATT at 85.9 percent. Only Sprint is an outlier, at 81.2 percent, and that’s not terribly surprising given the lower-quality state of the Sprint network. Like PCMag, Ookla found that ATT’s performance had grown the most in the past 12 months, thanks to its decision to begin replacing legacy LTE connections with more powerful, later-generation LTE hardware. Despite ATT’s ongoing attempts to label this as “5G E” technology, it remains entirely linked to LTE signaling and methodologies.
This distribution shows what percentage of each companies’ users report which level of network performance. 14 percent of ATT users, 19 percent of Sprint users, 13 percent of Verizon, and 13 percent of T-Mobile customers are in areas where they receive less than 5Mbps of download performance. A far smaller group of people with every company have the opposite problem and live in areas where they report more than 100Mbps of regular service.
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- US Mobile Download Speeds Shot Up in 2018, T-Mobile Beats Verizon