Do wireless providers deliver the connection speeds they promise for their 3G networks? In our tests, on average, they did. However, the services promise speeds within a wide range--if they provide a low end to the range at all--due to the wide variability of network performance from day to day and from neighborhood to neighborhood. So in practical terms, these ranges don't represent much of a commitment to consumers.
Verizon says publicly that its wireless customers can expect download speeds of up to 1.4 mbps and average upload speeds of 500 kbps to 800 kbps from its 3G network. Verizon came reasonably close to those speeds in our tests, delivering downloads at an average rate of 951 kbps across 13 cities, and uploads at an average rate of 426 kbps across the same cities. At these speeds, a 1MB file would download from the Web in 8.4 seconds or upload to the Web in 18.8 seconds. Verizon, which claims to have the "largest and most reliable" wireless network in the United States, delivered a reliability number of 89.8 percent across our tests in 13 cities.
Sprint easily delivered on its dependability promises in our tests, with a reliability rate of 90.5 percent. (The company claims to have "America's most dependable 3G network.") Sprint promises average download speeds of 600 kbps to 1.4 mbps, and average upload speeds of 350 kbps to 500 kbps. In our tests, Sprint came through on both counts, with an average download speed of 808 kbps and an average upload speed of 377 kbps. At those speeds, a 1MB file would download from the Web in 10.1 seconds, or upload to the Web in 21.6 seconds.
AT&T claims to be the "nation's fastest 3G network" and promises download speeds between 700 kbps and 1.7 mbps, and upload speeds between 500 kbps and 1.2 mbps. While we can't crown AT&T as having the nation's fastest network, we found that, on average, AT&T delivered upload and download speeds that fell within their promised ranges in our tests.
Verizon Speeds Fast, Consistent
Verizon Wireless did very well in our speed tests in the central and eastern parts of the country, especially in the cities of Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, New York, and Orlando.
Verizon achieved its fastest speeds in New Orleans, with averages of 1425 kbps for downloads and 550 kbps for uploads in our tests. The company's single fastest connection speed among the 13 cities where we tested was just over 2.3 mbps (also in New Orleans). Its poorest showing in our results came in Portland, with download speeds of 622 kbps and upload speeds of 410 kbps on average.
Verizon says that since the company formed in 2000, it has invested $50 billion in its wireless network. As of January 2009, the network supported some 80 million subscribers, the company says.
Sprint Fast in West Coast Tests
Sprint's test results were competitive with those of Verizon Wireless in most of the cities where we took samples, especially in the West Coast cities of Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle. Sprint's top speeds came in our Seattle tests, where it clocked an average download speed of 1005 kbps and an average upload speed of 469 kbps. Sprint's single fastest download speed in our results was a mark of 2.1 mbps in San Francisco. Sprint's worst average performance was in our New Orleans tests, with a download speed of 599 kbps and an upload speed of 240 kbps.
Sprint won't divulge precisely how much it has invested in its 3G network, but it does say that it has poured $18 billion into its wireless and wireline networks since 2006. The carrier's 3G network, which it launched in 2005, uses the same 3G wireless protocol used by Verizon Wireless-CDMA, EvDO Revision A. This may have something to do with the comparable performances of the two networks.
Sprint says that it has moved well down the 3G road, quickly shifting its subscribers away from older networks. "The vast majority of our customers use our 3G network, and the vast majority of the Sprint Mobile Broadband Network has been upgraded to faster [3G] EvDO, Revision A technology," says Sprint spokesperson Stephanie Vinge-Walsh. "Use of 2G continues to phase out; we expect those few customers still using our 2G network to upgrade as they upgrade their devices."
But unlike Verizon's, Sprint's wireless subscriber base has been shrinking. The network connected 49.3 million customers at the end of 2008, compared to 53.8 million at the end of 2007. Has the decrease in number of customers reduced the load on Sprint's network and contributed to its solid performance in our tests? Sprint's vice president of network development and engineering, Iyad Tarazi, insists that the two things are unrelated and that traffic on its 3G network has continued to increase throughout the past year.
Sprint will be the sole provider of the much-hyped Palm Pre smartphone, which it hopes will quickly increase its subscriber numbers. The iPhone certainly lit a fire under AT&T's wireless business, and the right killer device might work for Sprint, too.