SLIDESHOW

3G and 4G Wireless Service in 13 U.S. Cities

How did the four major carriers perform in our testing of 3G and 4G wireless service in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.? Check out our city-by-city performance charts.

3G and 4G Wireless Service in 13 U.S. Cities

When you look at the data in our 2012 study of 3G and 4G wireless service city by city, certain larger patterns emerge. Most notably, T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 dominated the 3G testing, earning the highest marks for upload speed and download speed in 11 of the 13 cities studied. The exceptions were Chicago (where AT&T captured the best upload and download speeds for 3G) and Dallas (where Verizon won for 3G uploads and AT&T for 3G downloads).

We saw three main patterns in our 4G test results. In five cities (Atlanta, Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco), AT&T swept the 4G upload and download competitions; in four (Denver, New Orleans, San Jose, and Seattle), Verizon swept both; and in the remaining four (Chicago, Dallas, New York, and Washington, D.C.), Verizon won for uploads and AT&T for downloads. Notably, in two of the cities where Verizon ruled (Denver and Seattle), AT&T doesn't offer 4G LTE service.

For details on how we conducted the testing for our 13-city study, see "Methodology in a Nutshell." Now let's take a look at the individual charts for each city.

Photograph by Robert Cardin.

Atlanta

T-Mobile had an exceptionally strong showing in Atlanta on the 3G side, with average upload speeds at 1.93 mbps and downloads at 4.53 mbps; only in San Jose (for uploads and downloads) and Los Angeles (for downloads) did T-Mobile score better on average. Meanwhile, AT&T's 3G speeds in Atlanta were well below the carrier's national average: The 0.49-mbps average for uploads was the company's worst showing, and the 1.62-mbps average for downloads topped only the 1.58-mbps average we recorded in Washington, D.C. The margin of difference in Atlanta between first-place T-Mobile and second-place AT&T in average 3G download speed was 2.91 mbps--the widest gap between first- and second-place 3G finishers in any city in our study.

4G was a different story, however, as AT&T showed the fastest average download speed of any carrier in any city we tested, at 11.60 mbps. T-Mobile did unusually well in here, too, delivering the company's second highest average download rate (7.31 mbps) in our tests, behind only its 7.46-mbps average showing in Seattle. Verizon, meanwhile, had its next-to-worst 4G download showing in Atlanta, at 6.24 mbps on average. As for Sprint, its modest average upload (1.36 mbps) and download (3.62 mbps) numbers were its second and third best, respectively, for the 13 cities we studied.

Boston

Boston fits the common pattern of T-Mobile winning for 3G uploads and downloads and AT&T showing the fastest 4G uploads and downloads. AT&T and Verizon delivered creditable download averages, at 8.60 mbps and 7.24 mbps, respectively.

Boston was one of four cities in our study (along with Chicago, New York, and San Francisco) that had a gap of less than 1 mbps between the average 3G download speeds of it first- and second-place finishers. With T-Mobile at 3.44 mbps and AT&T at 2.81 mbps, the gap was just 0.63 mbps.

Despite finishing fourth among the carriers in 4G download speed, Sprint's numbers were relatively strong in Boston at 3.90 mbps on average--a rate that the company topped only in New York City, with an average of 4.57 mbps.

Chicago

In Chicago, AT&T finished first in average 3G download rate (3.45 mbps) and in average 4G download rate (9.70 mbps), while Verizon took first in average 4G upload rate (6.92 mbps). But AT&T's 3G numbers weren't great in Chicago, compared to its performance other cities.

T-Mobile's normally strong numbers dipped significantly--especially on average 3G upload speed (0.78 mbps), where the company's recorded rate was dramatically lower than for any other city where we tested except Dallas. T-Mobile's 3G download average of 3.35 mbps for Chicago was the company's fourth-worst in our study. Even so, the difference between number one AT&T and number two T-Mobile was a scant 0.10 mbps.

Also noteworthy in the 3G data is Sprint's 3G upload average of 0.08 mbps--by far the worst average rate for any city on any measure in our study.

In the 4G bracket, AT&T notched the best average 4G download rate at 9.70 mbps and Verizon won for uploads with an average of 6.92 mbps. T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 service fared poorly in comparison to its service in other cities, registering its worst average download speed (2.24 mbps) and second-worst average upload speed (0.65 mbps) in our 13-city sample.

Dallas

AT&T's best 3G download numbers came in Dallas, with an average mark of 3.73 mbps. Dallas is the only city we studied where one company (AT&T) won for 3G and 4G download speeds, and another (Verizon) won for both 3G and 4G upload speeds. Meanwhile, T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 service registered 13-city worsts for average download rate (2.62 mbps) and average upload rate (0.45 mbps).

T-Mobile HSPA+ 42 service showed poorly in Dallas, where its average download rate of 3.32 mbps was its second-worst city average in our tests, and its average upload rate of 0.50 mbps was its worst upload average.

Denver

AT&T doesn't offer 4G service in Denver, and Verizon took advantage of the narrowed field to coast to top marks in average download speed (6.68 mbps) and average upload speed (3.70 mbps). T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 service rolled past its rivals on the 3G side with solid averages for uploads (1.53 mbps) and downloads (3.59 mbps).

T-Mobile put together competitive numbers in 4G, too--particularly on downloads, where its average mark of 6.10 mbps fell only a little short of Verizon's (winning) average rate. In fact the margin of difference between the first- and second-place finishers for 4G download speed in Denver is the smallest for any city in our study at 0.58 mbps.

Verizon's 4G marks were the lowest winning average for any city in upload speed and the second-lowest winning average for download speed, suggesting that AT&T 4G LTE may be a force to reckon with in Denver when the service launches there.

Las Vegas

The highlight of our Las Vegas testing was the excellent average download rate of AT&T's 4G service: 11.15 mbps, the third highest rate for any carrier in any city in our study. AT&T also racked up strong numbers for 4G uploads, with an average mark of 6.56 mbps--a number that the company topped in only one other city, with an 8.08-mbps average in San Francisco.

On the 3G side of the ledger, T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 took top honors for both upload speed (an average of 1.21 mbps) and download speed (an average of 3.11 mbps)--though the download average ranks as the lowest city-winning mark for 3G download speed in our study.

Overall, the winning 3G download average of 3.11 mbps and the winning 4G average of 11.15 mbps yield one of the widest disparities between top 3G and top 4G speeds of the 13 cities in our study--a difference of 8.04 mbps. The only other gaps exceeding 7 mbps occurred in Atlanta (with a disparity of 7.04 mbps) and in New York City (with a difference of 8.05 mbps).

Los Angeles

Los Angeles is one of five markets in our study where T-Mobile defeated all comers in the 3G upload and download competition, and where AT&T won the 4G upload and download contests.

We recorded the fastest average 3G download speeds in our study in Los Angeles, where T-Mobile turned in a robust 4.78 mbps. Los Angeles also had the second slowest winning 4G download speed in our tests (AT&T earned that distinction with an average rate of 6.62 mbps). The gap between best 3G service and best 4G service (as measured in our testing snapshot) was smaller in Los Angeles than in any of the other 12 cities we examined--just 1.92 mbps. The only cities that even approached that degree of parity were Denver (with a disparity between 3G and 4G of 3.05 mbps) and San Jose (also 3.05 mbps).

In contrast the gap between first- and second-place finishers in our 3G tests (T-Mobile at an average of 4.78 mbps and AT&T at an average of 2.67 mbps) was the third-widest in our study: 2.11 mbps.

Verizon had an especially difficult time in Los Angeles, delivering its worst city average for 4G downloads (an average of 4.04 mbps). As a result AT&T's worst city score for 4G downloads was still good enough to take the prize.

New Orleans

T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 service proved fastest in the 3G field in the Big Easy, with averages of 4.49 for downloads and 1.70 mbps for uploads.

Sprint turned in some of its worst 3G city averages in New Orleans, with an average download rate of 0.79 and an average upload rate of 0.30. The company doesn't offer 4G WiMax service in that city; hence the "NA" ("not applicable") for Sprint in the 4G charts at left.

New Orleans proved to be a very good city for Verizon 4G LTE service. Both Verizon's average 4G upload speed (7.68 mbps) and its average 4G download speed (8.46 mbps) were the second-highest city scores the company achieved in our test cities (bested only by its scores in Seattle).

Meanwhile, AT&T's average 4G download speed of 7.09 mbps ranked next to last (after its 6.62-mbps average for Los Angeles) for the 10 cities where the company offers a 4G option. Of course, 7 mbps is still plenty fast. But AT&T's average 4G upload speed in New Orleans (2.59 mbps) was by far its worst in the 13-city study group.

New York

In New York we found a wide gap between best 3G download average (3.30 mbps for T-Mobile) and best 4G download average (11.35 mbps for AT&T--an 8.05-mbps difference. Two key factors contributed to that result: T-Mobile's 3G rate was the second-lowest winning mark for any city, and AT&T's 4G rate was the second-highest winning mark.

AT&T 4G showed its widest advantage over Verizon 4G in New York. Verizon's average speed of 6.26 mbps put it 5.09 mbps behind the leader. Verizon did outscore AT&T on average 4G upload rate however--5.39 mbps to 4.46 mbps.

New York's average 3G download speeds showed considerable bunching, with just 0.70 mbps separating number one T-Mobile from number two AT&T, and just 2.49 mbps separating it from number four Sprint.

Our numbers suggest that Sprint's 3G and 4G networks in New York may be more robust than in other cities. The carrier posted its 13-city bests in all four categories--3G uploads, 3G downloads, 4G uploads, and 4G downloads--here.

San Francisco

These days, the wireless carriers tend to get their game on in San Francisco. Both AT&T and Verizon have very fast 4G services here. AT&T had the best average download speed, at an impressive 10.71 mbps, while Verizon turned in a solid 8.40 download average. The two had some of the fastest average 4G upload speed results in our study here as well.

AT&T has improved greatly on the 3G side after delivering poor service in the early days of the iPhone, and paying dearly for it. AT&T's 3G service performed very well in San Francisco, delivering the company's second-highest average download rate at 3.47 mbps (behind only its service in Dallas). But T-Mobile did even better, with an average download rate of 4.08 mbps.

Verizon delivered its worst 3G average upload rate (0.56 mbps) for any city, resulting in its only clear-cut last-place finish on any measure in our tests, though it did finish a hair behind third-place Sprint in 3G upload speed in Denver, too.

San Jose

What a difference 50 miles makes. AT&T has the fastest 4G service in San Francisco, but is no match for the speed of Verizon LTE in San Jose, our tests show. Verizon 4G clocked average speeds of 7.66 mbps for downloads and 6.52 mbps for uploads, compared to 4.74 for downloads and 2.5 mbps for uploads from AT&T LTE.

Another noteworthy power in San Jose is T-Mobile, which delivered a 13-city-best average 3G upload speed of 2.18 mbps and a 13-city-second-best average 3G download mark of 4.61 mbps.

Overall, the difference between T-Mobile's first-place average download speed of 4.61 mbps for the 3G category and Verizon's first-place average download speed of 7.66 mbps for 4G was just 3.05 mbps, a credit to T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 service.

Seattle

T-Mobile turned in the fastest 3G download speeds (averaging 3.87 mbps) in Seattle, and also the top upload speeds (averaging 1.59 mbps). AT&T achieved respectable scores as well, averaging 2.51 mbps for downloads and 1.44 for uploads.

Verizon posted its best 13-city marks for both 4G downloads (10.87 mbps on average) and 4G uploads (10.69 mbps on average) in Seattle, making it easily the fastest 4G service in town. But it's worth noting that T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 service clocked a surprisingly high average download speed, too: 7.46 mbps, the carrier's 13-city high. As in Denver, AT&T doesn't yet have 4G LTE service available in Seattle.

Washington, D.C.

Washington's results follow the New York City pattern: wins for T-Mobile in average 3G download speed (4.14 mbps) and upload speed (1.34 mbps), for AT&T in average 4G download speed (8.52 mbps), and for Verizon in average 4G upload speed (5.46 mbps).

Unlike our New York results, however, our Washington results show a relatively close finish in 4G download speeds among the top three contenders: only 3.16 mbps separates third-place T-Mobile from first-place AT&T. However, T-Mobile didn't keep pace with AT&T and Verizon in 4G upload speeds.

Our results for Washington also indicate that AT&T's 3G service in the area could use some work. The average 3G download rate of 1.58 mbps for the District of Columbia was AT&T's worst among the 13 cities in our study, and the gap of 2.56 mbps between that average and first-place T-Mobile's 4.14 mbps was the second-widest in our study.