Verizon and AT&T have averted the capacity crunch brought on by their reintroduction of unlimited plans. Both operators have halted their declines in 4G speed, and Verizon's speeds returned to their pre-unlimited levels at the end of 2017. But while Verizon and AT&T were dealing with their capacity issues, T-Mobile and Sprint were by no means idle. T-Mobile established itself as the dominant operator in speed, and won nearly every OpenSignal performance award in the 4th quarter. Meanwhile Sprint has reasserted itself, making big gains in several of our core metrics. In our 5th in-depth look at the U.S. mobile market, we parsed nearly 6 billion mobile measurements to examine the 3G and 4G experience offered by the country's four nationwide operators.
After Verizon and AT&T reintroduced unlimited plans last February, their 4G speeds began steadily falling in our measurements as their networks faced the increased data consumption. This autumn though, both operators arrested their free falls in speed. Verizon has even managed to reverse the trend and is now back to its pre-unlimited speed levels, according to our data.
T-Mobile has clearly taken advantage of Verizon's 4G speed challenges. While last year the two were tied in LTE speed, T-Mobile is now clearly locked into the lead spot of OpenSignal's 4G speed rankings. T-Mobile averaged LTE downloads of 19.4 Mbps in our Q4 measurements, compared to Verizon's average of 17.8 Mbps.
AT&T took the lead in our 4G latency rankings, beating out previous award winner T-Mobile. With an LTE network ping time of 58.3 milliseconds, AT&T had the most responsive 4G connections in our tests. T-Mobile, however, landed first prize in our remaining five metrics.
Sprint's 4G availability and speed continued to improve in our latest round of tests. In the last year, it's availability score jumped 9 percentage points, and its average tested 4G speed rose by 3 Mbps to 12 Mbps. Sprint still sits in last place in both categories, but it has gone a long way to bridging the big gap between itself and its competitors.
|Download Speed: 4G||Download Speed: 3G||Download Speed: Overall||Latency: 4G||Latency: 3G||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.
This metric shows the average download speed for each operator on LTE connections as measured by OpenSignal users.
This metric shows the average download speed for each operator on 3G connections as measured by OpenSignal users.
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.
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.
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.
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||Latency: 4G|
|Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land|
|Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim|
|Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach|
|New York-Newark-Jersey City|
|San Antonio-New Braunfels|
|Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News|
For this report, OpenSignal analyzed 5.9 billion measurements collected from 237,213 mobile devices between Oct. 1 and Dec. 30 of 2017. We used that data to compare the 3G and 4G services of the big 4 operators in the U.S. on the national level, and we drilled down into that data on the metro level, examining our 4G metrics in 33 major cities. Let's start first with the metric that grabbed all of the attention in 2017: 4G speed.
The story of 2017 in the U.S. was the full return of unlimited data plans. The two biggest operators in the U.S., Verizon and AT&T, reintroduced unlimited data options in February, giving into the competitive pressure of T-Mobile and Sprint's highly successful unlimited offerings. The effects on Verizon's and AT&T's 4G services were immediate. In a blog post published earlier in January, OpenSignal tracked the 4G speeds of all four major operators month by month up to November 2017. We found Verizon and AT&T 4G speeds dropped steadily in our measurements from February to August as the increased data demand of unlimited plans taxed their LTE network capacity. Only in September did both operators manage to arrest the downward trend, which was most likely the result of 4G capacity upgrades on both networks. Verizon's 4G speeds started trending back upwards, rising to 15.9 Mbps in November in our tests. In this report, which includes an additional month of data, we saw more evidence of a big Verizon end-of-year push in 4G speed. For the 4th-quarter test period, we measured Verizon's average LTE download speed at 17.8 Mbps, which is just shy of its February high of 17.9 Mbps.
Verizon's 4G speeds may have returned to pre-unlimited levels, but the recovery may have come too late. While Verizon was dealing with the effects of the unlimited data deluge, T-Mobile was making plenty of network upgrades of its own. T-Mobile 4G speeds have been shooting upwards steadily for the last year, and in the 4th quarter it hit a new 4G download high of 19.4 Mbps, establishing it as the clear leader in 4G speed for the second report in a row. Considering Verizon and T-Mobile were deadlocked in 4G speed just 12 months ago, T-Mobile's recent dominance in this metric is telling. One bright spot for Verizon, though, is in the major metro markets. While T-Mobile led in our national 4G speed metric, in many cities it found itself competing head to head with Verizon. T-Mobile either won outright or tied for our 4G speed award in 24 of the 33 markets in our analysis, while Verizon won or tied for the award in 23 markets.
Though AT&T has also stemmed its LTE speed decline, its recovery has been more muted. In the 4th quarter, we measured AT&T's average LTE download at 13.3 Mbps, nearly a megabit short of its February high of 14.2 Mbps. And just as T-Mobile is asserting itself at the top of our speed rankings, Sprint has been asserting itself at the bottom. Sprint's average 4G speeds have risen a remarkable 33% over the past year to 12 Mbps in the 4th quarter. Sprint still sat in last place in 4G speed, but if it continues its steep upwards trajectory, it could soon put pressure on AT&T for the third-place slot.
In 3G speed, T-Mobile again won our award with an average HSPA download of 3.5 Mbps, beating AT&T's average of 2.7 Mbps. As winner of both our 3G and 4G speed awards, T-Mobile was a lock for our overall speed prize, averaging downloads of 18.3 Mbps.
For the fourth straight report, LTE signal availability increased across all four operators networks. That means LTE connections are becoming easier to find for all consumers and 3G technology is receding even further into the background. A year ago, no U.S. operator had a 4G availability score above 90%. Now two operators, Verizon and T-Mobile, can boast of that honor. As in our last report, the two leading operators were extremely close in this metric, though T-Mobile barely edged out Verizon for our 4G availability award in the 4th quarter. Our testers on T-Mobile were able to connect to an LTE network 93.1% of the time, while our Verizon users found a similar connection 92.7%. That's less than a half a percentage point separating them. That neck-and-neck race was evident in our 33-city analysis where Verizon had the advantage. Verizon won our 4G availability award outright in 11 markets, but it drew with T-Mobile for the award in the remaining 22 markets.
AT&T placed third in our 4G availability rankings, but for the first time it faced a strong challenge from perennially last-placed Sprint. Our AT&T testers were able to find an LTE signal 87% of the time, while our Sprint users tapped into an LTE signal 85.7% of the time. Sprint was by far the most improved operator in LTE reach in 2017. Its availability score rose nearly 9 percentage points over the last twelve months, compared to 6 percentage points for T-Mobile and 5 percentage points for both Verizon and AT&T.
Our last set of metrics yielded a new leader in one of category. AT&T jumped over T-Mobile to win our 4G latency award. While latency doesn't get as much attention as speed or availability, it's becoming an important measure of the overall mobile network experience. Latency essentially measures a data connection's responsiveness — the lower the score the better. Low latency connections mean VoIP and video communications services perform better and real-time gaming and augmented reality apps experience less lag time. AT&T had the lowest latency in our nationwide tests with a reaction time of 58.3 Mbps. It also did quite well on city level as well, winning or drawing for first place in 27 of the 33 markets analyzed. T-Mobile's HSPA+ network won our 3G latency award by a big margin, landing it a grand total of five of our six awards — one short of the clean sweep it garnered in our last report.
2018 could prove to be an even more unpredictable year than its predecessor for the U.S. mobile industry. T-Mobile may have emerged as the dominant operator in our metrics, but it would be a mistake to dismiss Verizon. Big Red has a history of making big network moves when under pressure. It was the first major U.S. operator to launch LTE when the technology was only in its infancy, and when Verizon's 4G speeds began suffering under capacity strains in 2013, it responded with a major upgrade it called XLTE, which poured enormous amounts of capacity back into its networks. In 2018, we'll find out if Verizon's unlimited struggles amount to just a minor pit stop in the 4G race or whether Verizon has been lapped by T-Mobile. We'll see if Sprint can continue its 4G momentum and for the first time challenge its three larger competitors in our core metrics. The stakes couldn't be higher in 2018. The first 5G networks may still be years away, but the foundations of those 5G services will be built on the 4G infrastructure we use today. The more power the operators build into their LTE systems, the better prepared they'll be to offer the next generation of mobile services.
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