Two things are certain in the wireless industry: your bill will never be right the first time, and every carrier will claim it has the best service. Measuring cell coverage and speeds is a fiendishly tricky business: one set of results will claim that T-Mobile is the best, while another has it languishing in last place.
Thanks to the difficulty in testing and vastly different methodology used by different third-party test firms, there’s no such thing as a definitive ranking of the big four networks. But when the same carrier comes out on top in multiple tests from different firms, you have to assume they’re doing something right.
Ookla, the company behind the ubiquitous Speedtest.net service, has published a report on the state of the wireless industry in 2017. It’s based on a sophisticated analysis of data from millions of speedtests conducted by real-world users. It’s a “big-data” approach to network testing: rather than carefully controlling the devices, testing locations, and time of day, Ookla instead relies on the sheer number of data points to paint an accurate picture of each operator’s network.
T-Mobile took first place in the two most important metrics: overall speed and “acceptable speed ratio,” how often a user has a usable data connection (faster than 5Mbps, enough for streaming HD video). T-Mobile inched above Verizon in the speed score, 23.5Mbps to 23.21. That number isn’t just an average of all the speed tests on one network; instead, it’s a weighted combination of tests from the fastest, slowest, and median. That prevents a handful of absurdly fast speedtests (like 300Mbps on a brand-new city network at 3AM) from skewing the overall results too heavily.
T-Mobile also won the acceptable speed ratio, 78.1% to Verizon’s 77.8%. The 0.3% of difference is nearly indistinguishable, and Verizon actually pulls ahead on average speed ratio in urban areas.
T-Mobile was understandably excited about the results. “Millions of wireless customers across the US have spoken – AGAIN — and they’ve shown that T-Mobile is the master of all things unlimited, while Verizon is the master of none,” said Neville Ray, Chief Technology Officer for T-Mobile. “This is the reason we’re able to do things like Netflix On Us. Maybe now the carriers will finally start listening to their customers … stranger things have happened.”
Verizon has repeatedly disputed the conclusions of network test reports based on crowdsourced data. Big Red points instead to data from RootMetrics, a company that conducts “drive testing” around the US, a more repeatable approach that generally results in a Verizon win.
“Our network has never been stronger. Our network philosophy is simple: provide the largest coverage, the most reliable service and the most consistently fast speeds. This makes up the customer experience, Mike Haberman, VP of Verizon Wireless Network Operations, said. “While these crowd sourced tests don’t show how reliable a network is, other scientific studies do – and Verizon is the clear leader.”
Haberman is right that Ookla’s data doesn’t give as detailed a picture of reliability and coverage as drive-testing. Just because of where people with smartphones tend to live and how the testing works, crowdsourced reports favor fast, consistent service in urban areas — T-Mobile’s specialty — over a weak-but-usable signal in the countryside. Just as an example, Ookla’s data doesn’t show a failed speedtest — where a user doesn’t have enough coverage to even connect to a server — while RootMetrics’ drive-testing would.
Perhaps most importantly, the Ookla data shows that there’s no real winner between T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T. All three networks are within a couple of percentage points on the important numbers, and in any large metropolitan area, your network experience is likely to be similar on all three.
The only network that stands out (in a bad way) is Sprint. Its customers can get a usably fast signal just 64.9% of the time, while all three other carriers are at 76-78%. Its speed score is also way lower, at 15.39. All the other carriers are over 20.
In a statement on the test, Sprint acknowledged that “we have more work to do,” but pointed to Sprint’s year-on-year improvement in speed and consistency as a sign that “Sprint customers don’t have to choose between a good unlimited network and one they can afford.”