How the Big 4 stack up in the US in coverage and speed

The TV ad war between mobile operators in the U.S. has reached a fever pitch. Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile are using everything from marbles to samurai swords – and in T-Mobile’s case a good deal of sarcasm – to explain why their networks outperform the rest. Now seems like a good time as any for OpenSignal to release our State of Mobile Networks report for the U.S., which breaks down the coverage and speed of the nationwide operators’ mobile networks as measured by 180,000 network testers.

T-Mobile has been bragging about the big coverage gains it’s made in the last year, and our latest batch of data shows T-Mobile does have a lot to boast about. In the fourth quarter, we measured T-Mobile’s time coverage at 81 percent, which means that T-Mo 4G customers saw an LTE signal 81.2% of the time no matter where and when they connected (for info on time coverage see our methodology section). The most obvious explanation is T-Mobile’s recent network buildout in the 700 MHz airwaves. Those low frequency airwaves can travel much further afield in suburban and rural areas, and in dense urban cores they can more easily punch through walls to provide stronger indoor signals.

T-Mobile still has some catching up to do if it wants to surpass the two U.S. mega-carriers in coverage. It is now within spitting distance of matching coverage with AT&T, which scored 82.6% in our coverage measurements, but Verizon still reigns when it comes to network availability with a time coverage metric of 86.7%. T-Mobile’s network improvements, though, will go a long way to combat criticism about poor coverage.

Verizon still has plenty of ammunition to back up its claims of being the country’s most reliable network, but when it comes to speed, it was locked in a two-way battle with T-Mobile in the fourth quarter. We clocked Verizon’s average LTE download speed at 12 Mbps and T-Mobile at 12.3 Mbps, but due to the small margin of separation between them that amounted to a statistical tie.

Even when we compared LTE downlink performance in the country’s 11 largest markets, they were almost dead even. T-Mobile won four cities outright, including New York; Verizon took three, including Los Angeles; and they tied in three markets (the 11th market Houston was a statistical draw between all four nationwide operators). Thanks to some big capacity upgrades in the last few years, T-Mobile had been besting its competitors in speed for many consecutive quarters, but Verizon has made upgrades of its own, and it may well aim to recover its speed crown.

Chart by OpenSignal

Chart by OpenSignal

Sprint has been making waves with a new ad campaign that claims its new LTE Plus is the fastest in the country, but according to our measurements Sprint’s 4G network is still the slowest in the country with an average download speed of 6.6 Mbps. Sprint appears to be citing measurements taken solely on its LTE Plus network, a recent upgrade in 150 cities that uses technologies like carrier aggregation and smart antennas to significantly boost connection speeds. The problem is LTE Plus network is limited to urban centers and not all of Sprint’s 4G devices can connect to it. Meanwhile, OpenSignal is measuring the average speed across all of Sprint’s LTE connections, which paints a picture of what the typical 4G experience is like, not an optimized one.

That said, we’re definitely seeing evidence of Sprint’ 4G speeds increasing over the last year, thanks in a large part to more customers connecting to its amped-up LTE Plus towers. But for years Sprint lagged far behind the other operators in overall LTE performance. It’s starting to close the gap, but it still has some catching up to do.

Be sure to check out the full report and its interactive charts, where we delve into other data including 3G performance and network latency. We plan to release a new U.S. report every six months, and given how aggressive U.S. operators are becoming, we might see an entirely different mobile landscape come August.

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