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

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Sprint: Running to Stand Still

Wireless 3G and 4G service testing: Sprint
Photograph by Robert Cardin
Sprint's 3G and 4G services performed worse than any other carrier's in our study. Sprint's 3G CDMA network has fared poorly in our study for the past two years. And though our tests show that Sprint's 4G WiMax service is marginally faster this year than last year, it's still not in the same league as its rivals' LTE services.

Sprint 3G clocked average speeds of 0.59 mbps (590 kbps) for downloads and 0.56 mbps (560 kbps) for uploads--adequate speeds for basic mobile tasks such as browsing the Web (slowly) and checking email, but problematic for streaming video or music.

There isn't much good news about Sprint's existing 4G WiMax service either. We tested Sprint WiMax last year in seven of the cities included in this year's study. In those seven cities, the service's average speeds improved from 1.99 mbps for downloads and 0.61 mbps for uploads to 2.66 mbps for downloads and 0.92 mbps for uploads. But Sprint's 4G service is about as fast as AT&T's HSPA+ service, and quite a bit slower than T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 service. Most people consider both of these forms of HSPA+ to be 3G.

Sprint is clearly a company at a technology crossroads. In 2007, eager to be the first U.S. carrier to launch 4G service, Sprint chose the best technology then available, WiMax. Now it's paying a price for that decision in a wireless ecosystem that has overwhelmingly embraced the newer, faster LTE technology.

Phones used in testing Sprint's wireless services: LG Marquee (left) for 3G, and Samsung Galaxy S II (right) for 4G.
As the number of companies supplying WiMax devices, cellular base stations and other infrastructure equipment has shrunk over the past few years, the cost of running a WiMax network has grown, forcing Sprint to invest far more money than its competitors to build the same speed and capacity into its network. So for the past 18 months Sprint has been figuring out how to shift to LTE while still supporting its existing 3G and WiMax customers.

Sprint spokesperson Kelly Schlageter acknowledges the limitations of her company's network and service today, but she notes that speeds are not the sole measure of a wireless service. "We believe that customers value not only peak speeds, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the overall experience they get from their carrier--a combination of speed, overall network quality, customer experience, and value for the price they pay."

Sprint is executing its "Network Vision" plan to convert its infrastructure to LTE, while working with its WiMax partner Clearwire to convert its network to LTE. The company says it will launch the 4G LTE in several cities this summer.

Sprint network chief Bob Azzi said recently that his company won't release any more WiMax phones (earlier, Sprint had said that it would release new WiMax phones throughout 2012), suggesting that Sprint is serious about launching LTE service by midyear, as promised.

The plan will improve coverage, call quality, and data speeds in Sprint's 3G CDMA service, Schlageter says: "Cell sites with the new Network Vision equipment are popping up across the country now and will continue to come on air over the next 24 months covering the entire CDMA footprint."

Meanwhile, the carrier seems to be caught in a bind, with plodding 3G service and 4G WiMax service that's the slowest 4G option in today's market. "Sprint's 3G network is suffering from chronic underinvestment, and its LTE network isn't ready for primetime yet," says Sanford C. Bernstein senior analyst Craig Moffett.

Next page: How T-Mobile performed.

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