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

Sprint Continues Dependable Ways

During 2009, Sprint began to support millions of data-hungry Palm Pre and Android phones on its 3G network. Sprint says that 49 percent of the handsets it sold during the fourth quarter of 2009 were smartphones or other touchscreen devices, up from 41 percent from the quarter before. To accommodate the increased demand for wireless broadband that those devices bring, Sprint says that it spent $1.2 billion on its wireless network during 2009.

Overall, our research suggests that, in the areas we tested, those investments were just enough to enable the network to keep up with the increased demand.

Sprint?s network reliability scores suggest that customers aren?t having many problems getting on the network. Sprint ranked first in our reliability tests eight months ago, and it improved on that measure in our latest tests. Last spring we obtained a solid connection to the Sprint network in 90.5 percent of our tests; that figure increased to 94 percent in our most recent tests. The network scored perfect reliability marks in Baltimore, Portland, and San Diego, meaning that we enjoyed solid, uninterrupted connections at all 20 testing locations in each of those cities.

The Sprint network isn?t as speedy as it is dependable, however. The network registered download speeds of 795 kbps on average across our 13 testing cities--virtually unchanged from the 808 kbps it averaged in our tests last spring. Upload speeds also remained steady: Sprint uploads averaged 396 kbps in our winter tests, up slightly from the average of 377 kbps average we recorded last spring. These speeds are well within the ranges that Sprint promises its customers--upload speeds of 350 to 500 kbps and download speeds of 600 to 1400 kbps.

Sprint?s speed results suggest a tale of two kinds of cities--ones where the company upgraded its network in the past eight months, and ones where mobile broadband demand is outpacing any increase in capacity. We saw speed increases of 20 percent or more in Baltimore, New Orleans, and San Diego; but in Denver, Orlando, and Seattle, average download speeds decreased by more than 20 percent in our tests. The net result: Sprint had the lowest average download speed across all our tests among the Big Four carriers.

One possible explanation, according to Novarum CTO Ken Biba, is that Sprint is expanding its service city by city, upgrading networks where mobile broadband demand is greatest. The cities where it hasn?t yet upgraded its network are dragging down its 13-city average speed in our test results.

Sprint says that it has added about 11,000 cell sites to its 3G network since 2006, but it won?t disclose how many of those sites debuted in the past year. ?As customer demand grows, we have to continue to upgrade our network on a cell site by cell site basis,? says Sprint networks vice president Bob Azzi. ?I think we?ve been doing a good job of staying ahead of that growth.?

Testing the HTC Hero on Sprint

The speeds we saw in our smartphone-based tests of the Sprint network (using an HTC Hero) seem to corroborate Azzi?s claim: Though the capacity of Sprint?s network may vary from city to city, the performance that smartphone users see on the ground is fairly consistent across all 13 of our 13 testing cities. Download speeds for the Sprint/Hero combo consistently fell within the range of 700 kbps to 1000 kbps in most testing cities, yielding an overall download speed average of 851 kbps--significantly slower than the average connection speeds of 1000 kbps or better achieved by the AT&T/iPhone and Verizon/Droid combos. Sprint delivered download speeds in excess of 1000 kbps to the Hero in just 30 percent of our testing locations.

Upload speeds, while not impressive, were again consistent. We recorded upload speeds in the range of 100 kbps to 200 kbps--for an average of 145 kbps--across the Sprint network; those figures are in line with the uplink performance of the other phones in our study. As for reliability, Sprint established a solid connection with the Hero in 92 percent of our tests, the second-best reliability score in our smartphone-based tests.

Azzi says his company has seen a ?double-digit? growth in mobile broadband usage via devices like the Hero over the past year, but he welcomes the increasing demand. ?We want people to use as much data as they want, to use it in any way they want to use it; and we want make sure they can use any apps that they want to use,? Azzi says. ?My job is to stay just ahead of that.?

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

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