T-Mobile Wins Big in 3G
T-Mobile's wireless services don't fit neatly into the 3G and 4G categories that we used in our study. The carrier considers any T-Mobile phone that uses the HSPA+14.4 technology or higher to be a 4G phone. Whether or not HSPA+ is a true 4G technology is a murky subject that continues to spark debate within the wireless industry.
To steer clear of that controversy, we chose to classify T-Mobile's wireless services by how well they matched up with competing services in the marketplace. For instance, the data transfer speeds we recorded when testing T-Mobile's advanced HSPA+42 (named for its theoretical top speed of 42 mbps) service compared well with those for the 4G services of the other carriers, so we treated it as competing directly with those services. We used a new T-Mobile HSPA+42 phone, the HTC Amaze, in match-ups against the late-model 4G phones of the other carriers.
We took the same approach with T-Mobile HSPA+21 service, which compared well with the 3G services of the other carriers, putting it head-to-head against those 3G services.
T-Mobile showed very well in the 3G competition, beating the competition in every city we tested except Dallas and Chicago, where AT&T's HSPA+ service earned top marks. T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 service clocked download speeds averaging 3.84 mbps across our 13 test cities and upload speeds averaging 1.44 mbps. Overall, T-Mobile's speeds were about 50 percent faster, on average, than those of the second-place finisher AT&T, which posted 13-city averages of 2.62 mbps for downloads and 0.85 mbps for uploads.
T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 service was extremely consistent, averaging between 3 mbps and 5 mbps for downloads in all 13 cities we tested in, and averaging between 1 mbps and 2 mbps for uploads in almost all cities. That level of speed is fine for video streaming, a service that T-Mobile says many of its customers use frequently.
"Nearly 50 percent of our 4G data traffic is video streaming, and growing, which shows our customers have really embraced the T-Mobile 4G experience," says Mark McDiarmid, T-Mobile's vice president of engineering.
Overall T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 service delivered a 13-city average download speed of 5.53 mbps, versus 9.12 mbps for AT&T's 4G LTE service and 7.35 mbps for Verizon's. It also blew away Sprint's 4G WiMax service, which averaged 2.8 mbps across the 13 test cities.
Unfortunately, the HSPA+ 42 service's 13-city upload speed average of 1.32 mbps fell well below Verizon's 5.86 mbps and AT&T's 4.91 mbps. That transfer rate could cause problems for T-Mobile customers who want to use their phones to shoot live video or to share large files.
When the T-Mobile HSPA+ 42 is not available, the phone downshifts to the T-Mobile HSPA+ 21 technology, which in our experience usually didn't result in disruptive speed decreases.
T-Mobile's solid performance in our tests comes after a tough financial year for the carrier: The FCC and the FTC blocked its planned sale to AT&T, and more recently it has begun laying off employees (1900 so far) and closing call centers (seven so far).
While T-Mobile markets both of its HSPA+ services as being 4G, it has also announced that it hopes to launch its own LTE service in 2013 to compete with those of its larger competitors. (But since T-Mobile calls its current service "4G," what will it call its LTE network--"4G-er"? "4G+"? "4G 2.0"?) The carrier has said that it is laying off workers and closing call centers to save money for the new LTE network.
Though T-Mobile has been losing customers over the past year--in part because of its long courtship with AT&T--it continues to offer pricing plans (prepaid and postpaid/no contract) that are more flexible and less expensive than the ones its larger competitors offer. And that difference in approach demonstrates the wisdom of scuttling the AT&T/T-Mobile planned merger: The U.S. wireless market needs a (relatively) small, innovative insurgent to compete with the big boys to spur innovation and keep prices in check.
The results of our tests suggest that T-Mobile isn't just the "low-cost leader," either; its data service rivals those of AT&T and Verizon. The fact is that many (though not all) consumers can save money with a T-Mobile plan--and get good data service, too.
"The big winner here is T-Mobile," says Sanford Bernstein's Moffett. "If you can get past the '4G versus faux-G' hurdle, T-Mobile's network offers very good value for the money."
Next page: How Verizon performed.