4G Promises: Are Wireless Carriers Pulling a Fast One?

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If you've noticed that you're smartphone is getting faster, you're not imagining it.

All four of the major wireless carriers have been improving their networks across the U.S. But only one –Verizon – is consistently delivering download speeds of 3Mbps, the threshold of 4G, or better. That's according to a new report by RootMetrics, an independent company that tested wireless networks in 27 markets between March and October of this year.

"The clearest pattern throughout the 27 markets is that Verizon’s LTE is fast. Really fast. So much so that Verizon won our RootScore Award for data in 24 out of the 27 markets we tested, losing only in those cities where LTE was not present in a significant way," the report states. However, in the markets where Verizon does not offer LTE service (Buffalo, Virginia Beach and Kansas City) that carrier's performance was markedly slower; indeed it was among the slowest.

[4G Wireless Speed Tests: Which Is Really the Fastest?]

AT&T was in second place, although its margin over Sprint and T-Mobile, which were essentially tied, was not great. Since RootMetrics concluded its testing, AT&T rolled out 4G service in a few markets, and T-Mobile introduced an enhanced 3G service as well, but we'll have to wait for the next round of testing to see what they actually deliver. It's also worth noting that AT&T's scores improved noticeably over the eight-month span of testing as it introduced a 3G upgrade, with the technical name of HSPA+21.

The markets with the fastest downloads are Denver, Portland, Minneapolis, San Jose and Dallas. The slow-pokes? Riverside-San Bernadino, Calif.; Virginia Beach, and Buffalo, N.Y.

At this point, I have to say that there's something really infuriating going on here. The carriers make it as difficult as possible to figure out what they really deliver. Here's why:

Not all phones are compatible with the different standards, and it is not always easy to tell which phones work well with each one. You're probably aware that no iPhone model is compatible with 4G (or LTE as Verizon and AT&T call it.) But who on earth besides professionals like RootMetrics knows which phone works with HSPA+21 or T-Mobile's new HSPA+42, or other standards?

"It's very difficult for consumers to figure this out," said RootMetrics VP Julie Dey. "They'd have to go to the carriers' Web sites." But even then, you'd have to drill down and look at the specs of different phones to find that information. For the record, RootMetrics tested AT&T's new HSPA+21 service with a Samsung Infuse, and used an HTC Amaze to test T-Mobile’s new HSPA+42 service.

RootMetrics tests service speeds with real phones, while the carriers use circuit boards to ensure that the speeds they record are as high as possible. And the company also tests many times in many locations within a market to derive an honest average download speed. But just because a carrier delivers a service, say LTE, in a market, you're home or workplace may not be within the range of that service. So I always advise people to have a friend come over and test a phone you're thinking of buying in a place you're likely to use it most frequently.

Finally, RootMetrics notes that calling a speed of 3Mbps 4G is setting the bar pretty low, but it's a benchmark you should keep in mind when considering what service to buy. In the real world, a 4G phone will download a 30-minute television show in standard definition in 10 minutes or less. At a speed between 1.5 Mbps and 3Mps (the high-end of 3G) the same show will take as much as 20 minutes to download.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net and follow him on Twitter at @BSnyderSF..

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