What can overall speed tell us about US operators? A lot actually

It's been a tumultuous 18 months for the U.S. mobile industry. Verizon and AT&T reintroduced unlimited data plans sending their 4G speeds on a rollercoaster ride. T-Mobile asserted itself at the top of our rankings, climbing to first place in all of our metrics, while Sprint asserted itself at the bottom, nearly catching up to rival AT&T. And to cap it all off, we have new merger intrigue as Sprint and T-Mobile attempt to create the country's third mega-carrier. We felt it would be interesting to look at how all that excitement affected the everyday consumer mobile experience.

Our overall speed metric provides a good indicator of that experience as it encompasses several of our metrics. It doesn't just account for the fast speeds of LTE connections, but also the slower speeds of the 3G connections when 4G isn't available. 4G availability is another critical component of the overall speed calculation as consumers who have access to 4G signals more often spend less time on slower 2G and 3G networks. So let's look at the overall speed for each of the major U.S. operators from the 1st quarter to the 4th quarter of 2017 in nine three-month test increments.

The good news for consumers is that typical day-to-day download speeds increased on three operators over the course of the year, often by substantial amounts, according to our measurements. The fourth operator, AT&T ended the year with the same overall speed score it started with, 11.9 Mbps. But here's the kicker: Though Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon concluded the year with faster overall speeds in our tests, they each arrived at that point in very different ways.

Verizon had the most topsy-turvy journey. Starting with the introduction of unlimited plans in February, Verizon's 4G speed results took a massive dip in the 1st and 2nd quarters, almost certainly the result of more data consumption putting pressure on its network capacity. That drop in LTE speed had a big impact on its overall speed as our users were faced with slower connections while on its LTE network. But as Verizon's 4G download speeds began recovering in our summer test period, so did its overall speed. By the end of the year it had not only made up for all of its speed losses, but had surpassed its Q1 overall speed score by more than a megabit.

Meanwhile T-Mobile's overall speed path was one of steady ascent. Not only did T-Mobile's average 4G speed increase in our measurements, but its 4G availability did too, as our August 2017 and January 2018 reports clearly show. T-Mobile's HSPA+ networks have also consistently provided the fastest speeds in our 3G download tests. That means T-Mobile was able to deliver a three-punch combination: faster 4G speeds, more access to 4G connections, and fast 3G speeds. Those gains were reflected in its overall speed score which rose an impressive 2.6 Mbps in nine months.

Sprint's overall speed trend followed a similar rise, albeit in the lower regions of our chart. Sprint racked up the biggest gains in 4G availability in 2017 in our measurements, and by the end of the year it had nearly caught up with AT&T in terms of LTE reach. While Sprint still had the slowest 4G speeds in our results by the fourth quarter, it had made sizable headway. It's overall speed score rose by 1.8 Mbps in our measurements to end the year at 10.2 Mbps.

That leaves us with the most interesting case of all. AT&T's overall speed line looks like a shallow valley as, like Verizon, it was forced to deal with the impact of its newly-launched unlimited plans. According to our recent 4G speed analysis, AT&T's LTE speeds were still recovering from its Q1 and Q2 declines, yet as the chart above shows it's overall speed at the end of the year was exactly where it started in Q1. That's because AT&T's 4G availability increased over the course of the year. Our results show that even though AT&T's 4G speed fell in 2017, it was able to provide 4G connections more often, which kept its overall speed score steady. It just goes to show 4G speed isn't everything. Sometime it's better to provide a consistent 4G connection.

Stay tuned to the OpenSignal blog as we'll be exploring historical trends in our metrics in more detail in the coming months. And if you're a U.S. mobile subscriber, we'd love to hear about your own overall speed experiences. Did your day-to-day speeds change noticeably throughout 2017? Let us know in the comments section below.