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

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Verizon 3G and 4G Hold Steady

Wireless 3G and 4G service testing: Verizon
Photograph by Robert Cardin
Verizon's 4G was the first LTE service to reach the market; and in this year's tests it showed that it has lost little or no speed since launching in December 2010, averaging 7.35 mbps for downloads and 5.86 mbps for uploads in our 13 test cities. Verizon has told its 4G customers to expect download speeds of between 5 mbps and 12 mbps and upload speeds of between 2 mbps and 5 mbps, and so far it has delivered on those estimates.

Over the past year, Verizon has been trying to move as many of its customers as possible from its 3G CDMA network to its new 4G LTE network. So far, only a small minority of Verizon subscribers use 4G devices, but the number will continue to grow as contracts expire and people upgrade to 4G.

Still, in the short term, Verizon's 3G network will carry the bulk of the company's data traffic, which has grown significantly in the past year as more and more data-hungry iPhone users pull large amounts of data from the network.

Despite these pressures--and in contrast to last year's tests, where Verizon's 3G network yielded slower average transfer times than it had the year before--Verizon 3G has stepped up its speed a bit this year. In the eight cities common to our 2011 and 2012 studies, Verizon's average 3G download speeds rose from 0.83 mbps to 1.05 mbps, while its average 3G upload rates increased from 0.64 mbps to 0.73 mbps.

But Verizon's modest gains in 3G speed came as AT&T and T-Mobile dramatically improved the speed of their 3G-equivalent services over the past two years. Verizon's 13-city average download speed in our tests of 1.05 mbps is less than half the average speed of AT&T HSPA+ (2.62 mbps), less than a third of that of T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 service (3.84 mbps), and only about 0.46 mbps faster than that of Sprint's CDMA (0.59 mbps).

The average speeds of Verizon's LTE service didn't grow much from last year either, but it was already really fast. The service registered a 13-city average download speed of 7.35 mbps--somewhat lower than the rate that AT&T's new LTE service posted in the 10 cities in our test where AT&T LTE is available.

Phones used in testing Verizon's wireless services: HTC Droid Incredible (left) for 3G, and Motorola Droid Razr (right) for 4G.
In a statement, Verizon disputes our study's findings: "The vast majority of highly regarded third-party studies and tests consistently place Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network and data services ahead of the pack in terms of speed, quality, and reliability."

In its favor, Verizon's LTE service is battle-tested, highly reliable, and available in far more cities (203 at this writing) than AT&T's. Also, Verizon's LTE network had faster upload speeds than AT&T's did, averaging 5.86 mbps versus AT&T's 4.91 mbps.

Still, our results suggest that Verizon's combination of 3G CDMA and 4G LTE service isn't as compelling today as AT&T's combination of 3G HSPA+ and 4G LTE technology. Verizon's LTE is slower than AT&T's for downloads; and when a Verizon 4G device loses its 4G connection, it falls back to Verizon 3G--an average drop in our tests from 7.35 mbps to a modest 1.05 mbps. If this happens while you're in the midst of uploading a file or watching a video, the slowdown can be very noticeable. In contrast, an AT&T 4G user would experience a less disruptive downshift to 3G, dropping from a 9.12 mbps average download speed on 4G to a 2.62 mbps average on 3G.

Verizon says that its 4G users won't have a "CDMA fallback" problem for long. "[T]he Verizon Wireless customer's 4G experience increasingly is contained within the 4G footprint," the company noted. "And by next year, our 4G LTE network will cover virtually the entire US, rendering the overstated 4G vs. 3G coverage discussion moot."

Next page: Our testing methodology.

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