Which cellphone company has fastest 4G?

By Amy Davis - Reporter/Consumer Expert

HOUSTON - Cellphone companies increased the speed limit on the information super highway when they rolled out 4G, but some users who are paying for the faster service said they're still stuck in the slow lane. It's why Local 2 Investigates tested the four biggest networks to find out which carrier offers the fastest 4G in Houston.

"Facebook, email, Internet, school work," one smartphone user rattled off all of the things she does on her device. It's clear cellphones aren't just for talking anymore. It's why the data speed of your phone is so important. It determines how quickly you can upload and download video and send and receive emails. 

We tested the 4G speeds on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon all over the Houston area. We asked Open Signal, an online cell phone data collection company, to analyze signal strength data transmitted from more than 2.5 million Android users to find out which carrier is fastest at the Houston Pavilions downtown, The Woodlands Mall up north, Baybrook Mall in Friendswood and Katy Mills Mall out west.

"We're a completely independent and unbiased opinion of network coverage," said Open Signal co-founder Brendan Gill. 

In three of the four areas tested, AT&T delivered the fastest 4G. Verizon came in second place in every spot except Baybrook Mall, where it took the top spot for the fastest 4G.

Gill said AT&T's faster speeds are likely because its 4G network is newer than Verizon's, which means fewer people are using it.

"Fewer people on the network, that's going to make it easier for them in the early stages to deliver high speeds," explained Gill. 

Sprint came in third place. And the slowest 4G, according to Open Signal, didn't seem to be a surprise to anyone we polled. Everyone guessed correctly that T-Mobile was the slowest carrier. Gill said it may partly be because T-Mobile's network uses what's called evolved high speed packet access (HSPA+) and not LTE, like the other three carriers. 

"What you're seeing there is really a typical 3G speed," said Gill.  "I mean, they're claiming this is 4G technology, but that's sort of the level of the 3G networks."

T-Mobile sent us the following statement:

"Today, T-Mobile's 4G (HSPA+) network reaches well over 220 million people in nearly 230 markets. Over the past three years, T-Mobile has built a very competitive and pervasive 4G experience across the U.S. and was recently named the best mobile network for suburban and rural areas by PC Magazine (06/18). In fact, when testing in Houston, PC Magazine noted T-Mobile's 4G network delivered average download speeds of around 8 Mbps with peak download speeds of approximately 17 Mbps using one of T-Mobile's fastest 4G (HSPA+ 42) smartphones – the Samsung Galaxy S III from T-Mobile.

"T-Mobile will continue to push the innovation envelope by investing $4B to modernize its 4G network coast to coast with the latest state-of-the-art equipment this year, further enhancing nationwide voice and data coverage and paving the way for LTE, in 2013. Just last week (a week after the tests were conducted) T-Mobile announced Houston is of the latest metro areas where T-Mobile customers can benefit from enhanced voice and data coverage, and faster speeds on unlocked devices, including the iPhone."

Open Signal used the data transmitted from Android phones over several months at all times of the day and night to come up with the speed rankings. They admit networks may be slower or faster in certain areas and specific times of the day.

Verizon's Gretchen Whitaker emailed the following:

"1. Verizon's 4G LTE network has been in place in Houston since December 2010, reaches out to the suburbs, and our download and upload speeds performed very well in this study.

"2.  I would point out, however, that a customer's overall experience is about much more than speeds. If your calls or data connection are constantly dropped, it doesn't really matter how fast the network is – reliability and sustainability of the connection are key to a satisfactory wireless experience.

"3. The areas important to customers are listed here in this recent JD Power study. Verizon Wireless ranked highest in Network Quality Performance in Texas. They tested the three areas that impact network performance: calling, messaging and data. Overall network performance is based on 10 problem areas that affect the customer experience (in order of importance): dropped calls; calls not connected; audio issues; failed/late voicemails; lost calls; text transmission failures; late text message notifications; Web connection errors; email connection errors; and slow downloads. Here is the Verizon press release.

"4. A July test in Houston conducted by Root Metrics showed a clear advantage to Verizon Wireless in terms of data uploads speeds and overall data network accessibility and retainability – the ability to hold a connection and not drop.

"Thanks so much for doing this story and educating consumers on various components that can affect their level of service. Please let me know any questions or additional clarification needed for the story."

Sprint wrote:

"Sprint began rolling out LTE in July of this year, and Houston was one of our first announced markets. Sprint is very pleased with the speed and performance of the LTE network in Houston and we hope our customers are enjoying the enhanced experience – whether they are downloading video, sharing photos, or simply sending a text message."

For all of you techie types, the exact download, upload and latency speeds for all of the networks in our test are below. The format is Network Name (Rank) - Download Speed / Upload Speed / Latency:

5000 Katy Mills Circle, Katy, TX 77494
Verizon (2) - 12.0Mbps / 7.2Mbps / 179ms
Sprint (3) - 8.9Mbps / 5.2Mbps / 104ms
AT&T (Winner) - 16.1Mbps / 5.0Mbps / 87ms
T-Mobile (4) - 3.5Mbps / 1.0Mbps / 196ms

1201 Lake Woodlands Drive, The Woodlands, TX 77380
Verizon (2) - 11.5Mbps / 5.1Mbps / 182ms
Sprint (3) - 10.4Mbps / 3.4Mbps / 109ms
AT&T (Winner) - 14.0Mbps / 5.5Mbps / 118ms
T-Mobile (4) - 8.0Mbps / 0.9Mbps / 176ms

1201 Fannin, Houston, TX 77002
Verizon (2) - 13.5Mbps / 5.2Mbps / 234ms
Sprint (3) - 7.8Mbps / 6.1Mbps / 119ms
AT&T (Winner) - 14.4Mbps / 5.9Mbps / 90ms
T-Mobile (4) - 3.6Mbps / 0.8Mbps / 206ms

500 Baybrook Mall, Friendswood, TX 77546

Verizon (Winner) - 14.3Mbps / 4.5Mbps / 260ms
Sprint (3) - 7.3Mbps / 4.4Mbps / 93ms
AT&T (2) - 10.0Mbps / 5.2Mbps / 80ms
T-Mobile (4) - 4.1Mbps / 3.2Mbps / 302ms

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