Networking

3G Networks: Not as Fast as You'd Expect

3g broadband network speed
Artwork: Chip Taylor
The 3G networks of all four major U.S. wireless carriers deliver slower speeds than customers expect, according to Gartner Inc., which said it has received the most complaints about AT&T's network.

The Gartner findings, summarized in a recent report by analyst Phillip Redman, point to many factors behind the less-than-satisfactory speeds.

The research firm urged companies and consumers to be realistic in their expectations and read the fine print of their agreements with carriers, and it urged companies to test products before investing in them. "Most providers market speeds as high as 1.8Mbit/sec. on their 3G networks, [but] the fine print doesn't guarantee such speeds," the report said.

The Gartner report focused on AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA, noting that all of them market their 3G wireless speeds as "broadband" which is generally defined as data transfer speeds that are faster than 1.5Mbit/sec. for downloads and at least 250Kbit/sec. for uploads.

But the actual mobile network averages are "generally between 300Kbit/sec and 700Kbit/sec lower" than expected for both uplink and downlink speeds for many reasons, Gartner said. It noted that carriers "don't guarantee these speeds, but advertise they can provide 'up to' advertised speeds."

Only some laptop cards support the highest speeds promoted by carriers, Redman said. And network speeds can be half as fast as marketed when a users are moving around, such as while traveling in a car, compared to when they're stationary.

Redman singled out the iPhone 3G, sold exclusively by AT&T, saying it won't support downloads faster than 1.4Gbit/sec., while some laptop cards get 1.7Mbit/sec. "Companies shouldn't expect the fastest network speeds on the iPhone 3G," Redman said in the report.

In comparison, Redman said the BlackBerry Bold "supports faster speeds," though he did not detail how much faster they are.

All of the big carriers defended their marketing of 3G speeds and the way they deliver on their promises, but AT&T took special exception to the Gartner report and attacked Gartner's methodology.

"We deliver to customers on speeds," said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel in an interview. Redman based his conclusions about AT&T, he added, "on anecdotal feedback from only 30 customers to fashion some sweeping generalizations about us in particular."

Siegel argued that Redman should have tested the new BlackBerry Storm, which offers a full touch screen, as a comparison to the iPhone -- not the BlackBerry Bold. Redman refused, Siegel said.

Redman did not say how many complaints Gartner received, but defended the company's research methods as the best in the industry.

Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon, said 3G speeds are "exactly as promised," and noted that business customers and consumers adopting laptop cards are using the faster speeds for music and video. "I guess the proof is in the customer usage numbers," Nelson said. "Data usage has increased to more than 26% of overall Verizon Wireless revenue, with more than half of that nonmessaging data."

He said the advertised rate is the same as a consumer promise, Nelson said, which is described on the Verizon Wireless Web site as a "typical" download speed of 600Kbit/sec to 1.4Mbit/sec, with uploads of 500Kbit/sec. to 800Kbit/sec. for a laptop card.

Jeffrey Kagan, an independent analyst, said that while business clients of Gartner might be getting complaints about 3G speeds, the issue is not as a compelling for the overwhelming number of consumers who use faster networks for video and music and quicker Web browsing.

Most wireless customers have no idea what speed they are getting or what the 3G network is supposed to provide, and they're generally impressed with faster speeds than the speeds networks provided two years ago. "Users want to see continual improvement," he said. "Forget all the labels and numbers."

Kagan and Redman both noted that speeds are affected by many factors, including the number of users on a cell tower at a given time, the local geography, any interference from nearby buildings and variations between the devices they use.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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