You’d think that because you’ve got five bars on your phone that you’re getting a good service, but it’s a bit more complicated than that when it comes to smartphones like the iPhone.
The answer to the question of which is the best network carrier in any area depends on a lot of factors, including the network’s download speed, signal strength, response time and the number and location of cell towers there.
Best carrier for iPhone in the US (Verizon vs AT&T vs Sprint)
You’ll notice this web of effects in the network’s speed and stability when browsing, downloading apps, streaming music or buffering videos. Networks don’t make these parameters public, which has means that real network performance data has been almost impossible to work out until recently.
Boston-based start-up SwayMarkets and its CarrierCompare iPhone app helped CNNMoney to gain access to realtime, user-generated network data. CarrierCompare, released in April, allows iPhone users to see their network’s speed and response time and contrast it with the other two major iPhone networks. SwayMarkets analyzed the 3G network data generated by CarrierCompare users in Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
This may surprise you.
AT&T as often advertised, has the fastest 3G capability. Its average speed was the highest in all six cities SwayMarket looked at. This isn’t too surprising, as AT&T’s network technology has much higher top speeds than Verizon or Sprint. Theoretically.
The full picture is a bit more complicated than the headlines. AT&T actually gives the most inconsistent user experience. Speeds vary wildly depending on the time of day. SwayMarkets found that the network gets clogged in the afternoon and download speeds can become a lottery. Sometimes speeds are great, at other times they can be middling to poor. SwayMarkets found that AT&T’s speeds aren’t quite what they’re made out to be in the ads.
AT&T has labelled its enhanced 3G service as 4G, but it’s nowhere near as good as its faster 4G-LTE service. The company likes to say that its enhanced 3G service (the one it calls 4G) gives a “smoother, more consistent 4G experience” than Verizon.
AT&T also makes much of the steep fall in Verizon’s speed when users downgrade from 4G to 3G, but a congested network makes the drop from real 4G to enhanced 3G on AT&T just as dramatic. We put these findings to AT&T: “While we haven’t reviewed the data, there are always puts and takes in these types of surveys,” a spokesperson said.
Verizon: Verizon’s speeds came second in every city but New York, where it came third. Big Red came closest to AT&T in Boston and Washington, where it achieved 72% of AT&T’s speeds. In Chicago it was furthest behind the mark, at half the speed of AT&T. But as before, speed is only one factor. Verizon’s service is more consistent than AT&T’s, with fewer and smaller peaks and troughs. Verizon also has the quickest network response time, with webpages starting to load faster than the other networks after a click. Verizon starts working twice as fast as AT&T, and three times faster than Sprint.
This makes Verizon seem faster, even though its overall speeds are behind AT&T. SwayMarkets found that Verizon had the strongest signals, too. String signals don’t mean that much, though. As long as a user has at least one bar, there won’t be much of an effect on download speeds. But having more bars means that Verizon has more cell towers in urban areas, which gives users more points to connect to, meaning consistent data speeds and better call clarity.
Sprint: Sprint’s speeds were far from a sprint, coming in last everywhere but New York. They trailed behind. Sprint’s 3G network gave speeds that were less than one third of AT&T’s speeds in Los Angeles and Chicago. Its best speeds were in New York, where its average speed was 75% that of AT&T’s. Sprint’s response times were slow too, sometimes taking three times as long as Verizon to start loading web content. This network lag was the worst in all six locations. However, Sprint was the most consistent experience by far. Its speeds rarely left the median by more than 25%. Its signal strength was on a par with Verizon in four cities and it always outstripped AT&T’s.
AT&T is clearly the speed winner.
iPhone 5: Which way should you go?
According to crowd-sourced data collected by SwayMarkets shows that Verizon is the best performer. It’s usually best at connecting users to the network and responding to requests. It also has good speed and consistency. The networks, who perform their own field tests of their own and their rivals’ networks had their own opinions about SwayMarket’s findings. Here’s the key takeaway from SwayMarkets’ data dive: If you’re thinking about which carrier is right for you, there’s a lot more than bars to consider. So when the iPhone 5 comes out later this year, before you take a plunge and sign a two-year contract with either of the 3 US carriers, keep this in mind. Furthermore given that iPhone 5 rumors suggest it will work on the LTE network, it is important to consider that in terms of coverage Verizon leads followed by AT&T and then Sprint.