Verizon LTE Blazes, 3G CDMA Slows
"Verizon's new LTE service smokes," says Novarum CTO Ken Biba, who helped test the network. The speeds tell the story: Verizon's 13-city average download speed for laptop modems is roughly 6.4 mbps, more than double the average download speed of our study's second-place finisher, T-Mobile.
And that average includes Verizon's result in Portland, the only city in our study that has no LTE service yet. Excluding Portland and looking at the performance of the LTE network only, Verizon's average download speed jumps to almost 7 mbps. Only in Orlando did the network average less than 5 mbps, coming in at roughly 4 mbps.
Upload speeds were just as impressive. Overall, Verizon's upload speeds averaged roughly 5 mbps in our 13 testing cities; average upload speeds reached nearly 9 mbps in San Diego and San Jose. LTE networks differ from older 3G networks in that they are designed to be symmetric--that is, the pipe going from the client device up to the network is as wide as the pipe going down to the client. In many of our 260 testing locations, the Verizon network delivered upload speeds that were faster than its download speeds. San Diego's average upload speed was faster than its average download speed.
Such fast upload speeds can make bidirectional apps like videoconferencing, online gaming, and, later, mobile Voice over IP (VoIP) work far more smoothly and look and sound better. In these apps, the data you send from your device is just as important as the data you receive.
Such apps also depend on near-instantaneous response from the network, with minimal delay. For instance, in real-time VoIP calls, network delay is usually the cause of "lag" and echo. To have a natural-sounding VoIP conversation, you need network latency of less than 150 milliseconds, and LTE proved better at assuring that than other networks in our tests. In our 12 testing cities where Verizon's LTE service is available, latency times averaged just 114 milliseconds, significantly shorter than latency times in the HSPA+ and WiMax networks we tested.
Verizon's LTE network gives us a nice look at the future of wireless service, but only a minority of the operator's customers are using the network at the moment. Verizon currently sells only two models of USB modems that can tap the network, and the company isn't saying how many modems it has sold. New LTE phones aren't likely to arrive until this summer. So Verizon's LTE network currently handles nowhere near the number of devices it will have to support in the future.
"Verizon's new 4G network is a screamer, but that's partly because there's hardly anyone using it yet," says Craig Moffett, a senior analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.
Verizon has been assuring skeptics that its network will remain just as fast when loaded up with devices. "We're very comfortable with the speeds we have said all along that our customers should expect: on average, 2 to 5 mbps on the uplink and 5 to 10 on the down," says Verizon Wireless spokesperson Thomas Pica. "That's on a fully loaded network.''
Moffett accepts that claim: "Even as [the network] begins to get loaded with the first smartphones this summer, it will probably keep the crown; as usual, theirs is the network to beat."
Still, at present, Verizon's smartphone subscribers rely on the company's 3G CDMA network. And that network, as demonstrated in our tests, actually became slower over the past year.
In our January 2010 survey of 3G service, we measured average download speeds of around 1 mbps in almost all of our testing cities (the 13-city average was 1.078 mbps) on our Motorola Droid smartphone. In those same cities this year, we saw very similar performance on our Droid 2 smartphone--again, most speed results were grouped around the 1-mbps mark, but the 13-city average download speed was 7 percent lower than last year's, at 1.008 mbps.
We found further evidence of a stagnant CDMA network in laptop-modem tests in Portland, where the Verizon LTE service is not available. We found an average download speed of 0.8 mbps in Portland last year, and clocked an average speed of only 0.55 mbps this year. This, of course, is lousy news for Verizon smartphone users, including those who recently bought the new Verizon iPhone.
Did Verizon build its impressive LTE network at the expense of further upgrades to its 3G CDMA network? Are the majority of Verizon subscribers paying the price for the blazing speeds enjoyed by just a few? Verizon's Pica says no and no. "We continue to invest in our 3G network and we expect our customers to enjoy the benefits of its quality, breadth, and reliability for years to come, as we continue to roll out 4G LTE."
Next page: T-Mobile's HSPA+ network offers competitive speeds