3G and 4G Wireless Speed Showdown: Which Networks Are Fastest?

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AT&T Regains the Lead

Wireless 3G and 4G service testing: AT&T
Photograph by Robert Cardin
In the eight cities where we performed testing in both 2011 and 2012, AT&T increased the average download speed of its HSPA+ service (which it now markets as 4G) substantially, from 1.63 mbps in 2011 to 2.62 mbps in 2012. (We tested in fewer locations per city this year, and half of those locations were indoors.)

AT&T is quickly rolling out a 4G LTE network to compete with Verizon's LTE service, too. So far, the speeds that we've recorded for AT&T's LTE network are impressive: In the 11 cities in our test group where the service is available, the network delivered an average download speed of 9.12 mbps. That's about 25 percent faster, on average, than Verizon LTE's download average of 7.09 mbps in those same ten cities. Verizon LTE was faster than AT&T LTE in only two of the 11 cities: New Orleans and San Jose.

The AT&T LTE network, which launched in September of last year, is currently offered in 31 cities, far fewer than the 203 that Verizon's LTE network serves. AT&T says that it expects its LTE network to be complete by the end of 2013, at which point users should be able to get 4G service anywhere that AT&T offers its 3G service today. AT&T says 4G customers can expect download speeds of between 5 mbps and 12 mbps, and upload speeds of between 2 mbps and 5 mbps.

Phones used in testing AT&T's wireless services: Motorola Atrix 2 (left) for 3G, and HTC Vivid (right) for 4G.
AT&T's ace in the hole is its compelling pairing of 4G LTE service and 3G-equivalent HSPA+ service, which turned out to be the fastest combination offered by any carrier in our study. When 4G service becomes unavailable on your AT&T 4G phone, the phone automatically switches over to AT&T's HSPA+ network, which in our tests delivered snappy download speeds (2.62 mbps on average). As a result, users won't experience the dramatic and frustrating 3G-to-4G speed decreases that they would on other services.

AT&T says it kept investing in its HSPA+ network to ensure a smooth transition to 4G LTE.

"We made a decision to roll out ongoing upgrades and invest in our mobile network, on our way to more broadly deployed 4G LTE, so our customers could enjoy fast speeds and the best possible experience," said John Donovan, AT&T's vice president of technology and network operations. "It's great to see the results of our 4G network strategy in PCWorld's tests and in the feedback we're getting from our customers."

Next page: How Sprint performed.

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