State of Mobile Networks: USA (February 2017)

Verizon has clearly taken exception to T-Mobile's recent attempts to steal the network spotlight. Verizon is fighting back with 4G upgrades of its own, and as our latest results in the U.S. show, it's doing so quite effectively. The two are again tied in network speeds in our tests, but T-Mobile continues to chip away at Verizon's vaunted lead in 4G availability. Drawing on 4.6 billion measurements, OpenSignal compared both the national and regional performance of the U.S. big 4.

Report Facts

4,599,231,167
Measurements
169,683
Test Devices
2016-10-01 - 2016-12-31
Sample Period
USA
Report Location

Highlights

T-Mobile and Verizon are neck and neck in speed

Six months ago T-Mobile had just edged ahead of Verizon in our 4G speed rankings, but in our fourth quarter tests Verizon regained ground. The two were tied for first place in our 4G and overall speed metrics.

Verizon holds onto top spot for 4G availability

Our testers were able to find a Verizon LTE signal 88.2% of the time, cementing Big Red's place at the top of our 4G rankings. But T-Mobile has been systematically closing the gap. In the fourth quarter its 4G availability was less than two percentage points below Verizon's, the closest we've seen that difference.

All four operators extend their LTE reach

In the last six months, all four operators saw significant improvements in their 4G availability scores. Sprint, however, experienced the biggest boost of nearly 7 percentage points. Sprint is still in last place in our availability rankings, but it's definitely improving quickly.

3G connections fade into the background

As operators provide more consistent LTE coverage, 3G connections are becoming largely irrelevant. Our overall speed measurements, which factor in both 3G and 4G networks, were less than 2 Mbps slower than operators' 4G speed measurements. Smartphone users are spending so little time on CDMA and HSPA networks that those connections are barely factoring into our results.

Awards Table

Download Speed: 4G Download Speed: 3G Download Speed: Overall Latency: 4G Latency: 3G Availability: 4G

AT&T

Sprint

T-Mobile

medal medal medal medal

Verizon

medal medal medal medal

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Performance by Metric

Availability: 4G

This metric shows the proportion of time OpenSignal users have an LTE connection available to them on each operator’s network. It's a measure of how often users can access a 4G network rather than a measure of geographic or population coverage.

Download Speed: 4G

This metric shows the average download speed for each operator on LTE connections as measured by OpenSignal users.

Download Speed: 3G

This metric shows the average download speed for each operator on 3G connections as measured by OpenSignal users.

Download Speed: Overall

This metric shows the average download speed experienced by OpenSignal users across all of an operator's 3G and 4G networks. Overall speed doesn't just factor in 3G and LTE speeds, but also the availability of each network technology. Operators with lower LTE availability tend to have lower overall speeds because their customers spend more time connected to slower 3G networks.

Latency: 4G

This metric shows the average latency for each operator on LTE connections as measured by OpenSignal users. Latency, measured in milliseconds, is the delay data experiences as it makes a round trip through the network. A lower score in this metric is a sign of a more responsive network.

Latency: 3G

This metric shows the average latency for each operator on 3G connections as measured by OpenSignal users. Latency, measured in milliseconds, is the delay data experiences as it makes a round trip through the network. A lower score in this metric is a sign of a more responsive network.

Regional Performance

This chart shows the regional winners in each category OpenSignal measures. Click on the icons to see a more detailed graph showing each operator’s metrics in a particular region.

Region Availability: 4G Download Speed: 4G
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell
Austin-Round Rock
Baltimore-Columbia-Towson
Boston-Cambridge-Newton
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin
Cincinnati
Cleveland-Elyria
Columbus
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington
Denver-Aurora-Lakewood
Detroit-Warren-Dearborn
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land
Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson
Kansas City
Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach
Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington
New York-Newark-Jersey City
Oklahoma City
Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington
Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale
Pittsburgh
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario
Sacramento-Roseville-Arden Arcade
San Antonio-New Braunfels
San Diego-Carlsbad
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue
St. Louis
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria

Some graph here

graph here

legend goes here

Analysis

The war between T-Mobile and Verizon over network performance has taken a new twist. In our latest round of tests, Verizon has regained lost ground in 4G speed, bringing it even with T-Mobile. Meanwhile T-Mobile has continued to narrow the gap with Verizon in our 4G availability rankings, putting the Un-carrier within a stone's throw of matching Verizon signal for signal. In no report has the clash between the two operators been so heated. Either Verizon or T-Mobile won or shared every single national award in our report.

In our third State of Mobile Networks report for the U.S., OpenSignal parsed 4.6 billion measurements collected by 169,683 smartphone users in the fourth quarter of 2016 to gauge the 3G and 4G performance of national operators AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. We also examined 4G speed and availability in 36 of the biggest cities in the U.S. First, let's look at the tight race over network speed.

It's a draw

The LTE speed race between T-Mobile and Verizon has long been a close one, but in our last U.S. report T-Mobile held the edge. That narrow lead, however, disappeared in our latest round of testings. We measured average LTE download speed on T-Mobile at 16.7 Mbps and on Verizon at 16.9 Mbps, results close enough to produce a statistical tie. While T-Mobile LTE speeds essentially held steady in our tests since our last report, we recorded a 1 Mbps bump in Verizon's average performance.

We also measured a 1 Mbps boost in AT&T's 4G speeds between reports, but our average download measurement on Sprint's LTE network dropped slightly. For 3G, we saw the typical huge gap between CDMA and HSPA connection speeds. T-Mobile won our 3G speed award with an average download of 4 Mbps, followed by AT&T with an average of 3 Mbps, but 3G is becoming less of a factor in gauging operators' overall performance in the U.S. as LTE signals become widespread. All four operators' overall speed scores — which measures the typical download speed our users experience across all data networks — were only a megabit or two slower than their 4G speeds in our measurements. T-Mobile's fast HSPA+ network gave it a slight bump in our overall speed metric, but T-Mobile and Verizon were still in a dead heat in our overall category, tying with an average of about 14.6 Mbps.

In August, Verizon announced it was implementing an LTE-Advanced upgrade across its 4G network, stating it would boost peak speeds by as much as 50%. While OpenSignal tracks average speeds, not peak speeds, we definitely see evidence of Verizon's upgrades showing up in our metrics. In addition to our measured uptick in national 4G speeds, we recorded big increases for Verizon in several of the markets in our U.S. city breakdown. For instance, our tests in New York City showed that Verizon's average LTE download jumped from 17.4 Mbps to 22 Mbps since the summer, which allowed Verizon to leap over T-Mobile for our speed prize in the Big Apple.

Verizon ranked highest in speed in 14 of the 36 cities we analyzed, compared to four cities for T-Mobile and one for AT&T, but in seven other metro areas the speed contest between Verizon and T-Mobile resulted in a statistical tie. In three other cities we recorded a draw between AT&T and either Verizon or T-Mobile, while in the remaining markets, we saw ties between three or more operators.

A tightening race over 4G reach

Verizon has long been proud of its network reach, and its dominance in 4G availability continued in our latest tests. Rather than track geographic coverage, our availability metric measures the proportion of time our users can access a particular network. In Verizon's case, our testers were able to find an LTE signal 88.2% of the time, earning it once again our award for best 4G availability. For the last year, however, T-Mobile has been climbing up our rankings. In our last report, T-Mobile surpassed AT&T, and in our most recent tests T-Mobile has closed the gap separating it from Verizon to within 2 percentage points. Users were able to connect to the T-Mobile network 86.6% of the time, while we measured AT&T's 4G availability at 82.2%.

Just as Verizon has been boosting its LTE network capacity and performance, T-Mobile has been expanding its LTE footprint and reach, tapping low-frequency airwaves that propagate further and penetrate deeper into buildings. But T-Mobile isn't the only one providing a more consistent LTE signal. Since our last U.S. report, all four national operators saw not insignificant improvements in our 4G availability metrics, but the biggest improvement we measured was on Sprint's LTE network. Sprint's 4G availability jumped from 69.9% in August to 76.8%. Sprint, however, is still last among the four national operators in our availability rankings, but it's now much closer to bridging the once yawning chasm between itself and the other three.

In our 4G availability breakdown of U.S. cities, Verizon emerged as the dominant operator in our tests. It won our award for best 4G availability in 20 of the 36 markets we analyzed, and it was the only operator to win any of those awards outright. In the remaining 16 cities, Verizon was also extremely competitive, drawing statistically with one or more operators for the top ranking.

The final metric we looked at was latency, which measures the response time of a data connection. Networks with lower latency generally start loading web pages and videos faster. A low latency also means less lag time in real-time communications apps like voice over LTE, which is beginning to displace 2G voice services on U.S. operators' networks. In our last report Sprint won our 4G latency award and T-Mobile won its 3G counterpart. In our latest tests, T-Mobile held onto the 3G award with a latency of 115.8 milliseconds, but Verizon walked away with our 4G prize, averaging 59.8ms.

Improving by increments

While we didn't track any major shifts in our metrics from one report to the last, we're clearly seeing steady increases in speed and availability across the board. The U.S. has long been one of the world leaders in providing consistent LTE access, and it's only adding to its elevated status each year with gradual gains in 4G service availability. In several of U.S. cities we analyzed, we were able to find an LTE signal more than 90% of the time on one or more operators' networks. As a whole, the U.S. mobile operator community had an overall 4G availability score of 81.3%, as measured in our recent State of LTE report, so it will take some work before the entire country has access to 4G connections 90% of the time. But that's a very high bar to achieve indeed. Only two countries have managed to surpass 85% 4G availability: Japan and South Korea.

In terms of LTE speed, though, the U.S. still lags the global mobile community, despite incremental improvements in performance. We see speeds on the increase at operators like AT&T and Verizon thanks to new upgrades and new 4G spectrum, and in individual cities operators are pushing well beyond 20 Mbps in our download tests. But in our nationwide tests, all four operators fell short of the global LTE download average of 17.4 Mbps. While U.S. operators are starting to take advantage of new LTE-Advanced techniques, they haven't pushed the limits of that technology to the extent that we have seen in Europe, East Asia and even neighboring Canada. We're seeing average LTE-Advanced speed in many of those countries exceed 25 Mbps — and in some cases 40 Mbps. Some LTE-Advanced networks are clearly more advanced than others.

Our Methodology

OpenSignal data is collected from consumer smartphones and recorded under conditions of normal usage. As opposed to drive-test data, which attempts to simulate what a user might experience by using the same devices to measure network performance in a small number of locations, we take our measurements from millions of smartphones owned by regular people who have downloaded OpenSignal’s apps.

Those measurements are taken wherever users happen to be, whether indoors or out, in a city or in the countryside, representing a mobile data service the way users experience it. We continually adapt our methodology to best represent the changing experience of consumers on mobile networks and therefore comparisons of the results to past reports should be considered indicative only. For more information on how we collect and analyze our data see our methodology page.

For this particular report, 4,599,231,167 datapoints were collected from 169,683 users during the period: 2016-10-01 - 2016-12-31.

All data has been collected from users of the OpenSignal mobile app for Android or iOS.

For every metric we've calculated statistical confidence intervals and plotted them on all of the graphs. When confidence intervals overlap for a certain metric, our measured results are too close to declare a winner in a particular category. In those cases, we show a statistical draw. For this reason, some metrics have multiple operator winners.

©2017 OpenSignal, Inc. All rights reserved.

OpenSignal, Inc retains ownership of this report including all intellectual property rights, data, content, graphs & analysis. Reports produced by OpenSignal, Inc may not be quoted, reproduced, distributed, published for any commercial purpose (including use in advertisements or other promotional content) without prior written consent.

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