AT&T Roars Back in PCWorld’s Second 3G Wireless Performance Test

The Empire Strikes Back: AT&T?s Dramatic 3G Makeover

Our most recent tests showed that the connection speeds delivered by AT&T's network--both downloads and uploads--increased considerably in every one of our test cities, compared with the speeds it registered in identical tests we conducted last spring. In Baltimore, New York City, New Orleans, Portland, and Seattle, AT&T?s average download speeds in our tests more than doubled. The network?s 13-city average download speed was 1.4 mbps; that?s as fast as many home broadband connections. In our tests, none of AT&T?s three biggest competitors registered average download speeds of better than 1 mbps.

In our Baltimore, Boston, and New York tests, AT&T?s HSPA network delivered burst speeds exceeding 4000 kbps--a top speed that Sprint and Verizon can?t match with their current 3G technology, CDMA EvDO Rev. A.

AT&T?s upload speeds were one of the few bright spots in its test results last spring, and the network continued to deliver the fastest upload speeds of the Big Four networks in our latest tests. AT&T upload speeds increased by 41 percent and now average 773 kbps--that?s 330 kbps faster than the average upload speed we clocked for Verizon, the second-fastest network.

Testing the iPhone on AT&T

Our smartphone-based tests of the AT&T network told the same story as our laptop-based tests, though they also revealed the speed limitations of smartphones in general, especially when the devices are uploading data to the network. The AT&T and iPhone combo turned in the fastest average speeds--downstream and upstream--of the four carrier/smartphone combinations we tested, outperforming its rivals in more than three-fourths of the cities we sampled. AT&T connected the iPhone at an average download speed of 1259 kbps, and an average upload speed of 215 kbps over the13 testing cities. The iPhone clocked download speeds of at least 1000 kbps in more than 60 percent of our testing locations, with burst rates often exceeding 3000 kbps, and we managed to obtain a reliable connection in 91 percent of our AT&T/iPhone tests.

What Happened?

AT&T appears to have added considerable data service capacity during a year when its wireless subscriber base grew considerably, as did the amount of data service those subscribers use. During 2009, AT&T's total subscriber count swelled from 77 million to more than 85 million, with a growing proportion of those subscribers--40 percent, AT&T says--now using smartphones. And of AT&T's 85 million subscribers, 10.3 million now connect to the network using an iPhone, which seems to invite users to perform bandwidth-intensive activities such as Web browsing and video streaming. ?On the AT&T network, we?re seeing advanced smartphones like the iPhone driving up to 10 times the amount of usage of other devices on average,? says AT&T spokesperson Jenny Bridges.

At the time of our first 3G network test last spring, AT&T's premier device--the iPhone--had become both a blessing and a curse: The company?s coup of becoming the exclusive service provider for the iPhone undoubtedly helped swell the customer base for its wireless services. But the iPhone also seriously challenged AT&T?s data network resources, especially in iPhone-happy places like San Francisco and New York City.

Shortly after we revealed the results of our Spring 2009 tests, AT&T announced plans to increase the speed of its 3G service. To achieve this goal, AT&T said, it would upgrade its networks to the faster High Speed Packet Access

(HSPA) 7.2 technology (thereby doubling the maximum speeds of upgraded cell sites), utilize better-performing portions of the wireless spectrum, increase backhaul capacity, and add new cell towers.

In a recent conference call with investors, AT&T head of operations John Stankey said that the company had finished upgrading its network to HSPA 7.2 technology far ahead of schedule. ?We have already turned up the 7.2 software on our 3G cell sites nationwide,? Stankey said on the call. He also pointed out that AT&T had added 1900 new cell sites and had converted its network to the 850MHz spectrum band, during 2009.

The combination of these improvements probably accounts for the large speed increases we saw in our recent tests. ?It is clear that at this time AT&T has the highest-performing network with the highest user capacity, based on our sample,? says Novarum CTO Ken Biba, who conducted the tests. ?With the additional investment in HSPA 7.2 base stations [last year] and high-speed backhaul infrastructure, AT&T has room for growth in demand.? Biba says. ?However, demand will only accelerate with the iPad, e-readers, streaming video, and new mobile applications. Will AT&T have enough capacity with HSPA 7.2? Will the transition to LTE happen fast enough? These are all key questions for 2010.?

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

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