When will Verizon’s blistering 4G LTE slow down?

Let’s face it… not all 4G is created equal. When Verizon Wireless’ LTE launched in its first few markets last year, bloggers and media saw blazing fast data speeds in their tests that put other 4G networks to shame. So did we. In fact, on numerous occasions and in numerous device reviews, we called Verizon’s LTE the fastest cellular data service we had ever tested. But a common sentiment rang throughout the Internet: Verizon’s 4G LTE is fast now, but that’s because the network is empty. And Verizon Wireless’ competition mirrored the opinion, of course. In a private conversation about the discrepancy in performance between Sprint’s 4G WiMAX and Verizon’s 4G LTE, a Sprint executive told me that Verizon’s network was so fast because it was empty. “Wait until it fills up,” the exec chuckled. “Then we’ll see if the ThunderBolt still deserves its name.”
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Yes, post-3G cellular networks are important for a variety of reasons; just ask AT&T why it is currently trying to spend $39 billion to acquire T-Mobile USA. I covered some of these reasons in a recent feature. But speed is still of the utmost importance, of course, and Verizon is the undisputed king right now. It also has the youngest 4G network among major U.S. carriers, which include Sprint’s 4G WiMAX network and HSPA+ networks belonging to AT&T and T-Mobile. In my testing in New York City, where I live in Bergen County New Jersey, in San Francisco, in Dallas, and in every other 4G city I’ve visited, Verizon’s LTE network makes the competition look like dial-up.

In the beginning, the congestion argument was a good one for Verizon’s competition to make. Verizon Wireless’ LTE was brand new while other carriers had hundreds of thousands of 4G subscribers. But fast forward to today, and Verizon Wireless 4G is just as fast as ever. I performed about 20 speed tests with a Novatel Wireless 4G MiFi in and around New York City ahead of publishing this piece, and Verizon’s network is just as fast now as it was when it launched in this region. Download speeds ranged from about 6Mbps to over 22Mbps depending on the website I used to test my data speeds, and upload speeds hovered between 2Mbps and 5Mbps. Here are the results from a few of the LTE tests:

So when is the network going to slow down?

We’re half way through 2011 right now and Verizon has been unrelenting in its 4G build-out. The HTC Thunderbolt was a big seller for Verizon, racking up 260,000 activations in the first quarter of 2011, and now Samsung’s DROID Charge is one of the more popular smartphones sold by the carrier. BGR has also confirmed with multiple authorized Verizon Wireless retailers that its 4G mobile hotspots and 4G laptop dongles are among the most popular broadband accessories it sells. Long story short, the network has traffic.

Other U.S. carriers will find a million different ways to argue that their 4G networks are just as good or better than Verizon’s. Maybe Verizon doesn’t have quite as many 4G subscribers… Maybe Sprint’s network performs better in other regions… Maybe AT&T’s 4G network was having a bad day… Maybe I wasn’t sitting in the right spot wearing an aluminum foil hat and facing east when I tested T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network and that’s why peak speeds weren’t higher… Fair enough, but let’s not forget that these same carriers are currently making big investments in 4G LTE. AT&T has confirmed on numerous occasions that it will launch LTE in several markets starting this summer, and now even Sprint is reportedly beginning to invest in 4G LTE as well.

If their current 4G networks are so great, why bother?

Just as Verizon took its trailing position in the smartphone race and turned it on its head to offer what is arguably the best smartphone portfolio in the country, the nation’s top carrier is now doing the same thing with its network. CDMA was old and slow two years ago, and now it’s practically laughable. There’s nothing laughable about a 4G LTE network that consistently outperforms my wireline broadband service, however, and Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile are stuck playing follow the leader.

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