U.S. mobile operators are launching 5G networks in a multitude of cities, with urban smartphone users now experiencing some of the fastest real-world mobile download speeds to date to build on the existing state of U.S. mobile experience. However, many rural users will likely have to wait several years before they see a 5G connection even with moves to launch 5G on lower frequency bands. In the meantime, rural users will have to settle for connecting to legacy 4G and 3G networks.
Opensignal’s detailed analysis of the rural U.S. shows users’ mobile experience will vary greatly depending on their proximity to urban areas and on choice of mobile operator. For this study, we looked at measures of mobile network experience across three different types of rural America in order of “remoteness” — Fringe, Distant and Remote — using the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) definitions of rural U.S.
Opensignal users on Verizon’s network experienced the highest 4G Availability across the rural U.S. Unlike users on other carriers, our Verizon users on average connected to 4G more than 80% of the time in all types of rural locales from Fringe to Remote.
Opensignal’s users on AT&T and T-Mobile's networks enjoyed a faster Download Speed Experience across the rural U.S. than users on other carriers, including Verizon. In the Distant and Remote rural areas AT&T users experienced average download speeds of 15 Mbps and 14.6 Mbps respectively compared with 13.8 Mbps and 12.3 Mbps for users on Verizon.
Our users on Verizon’s network saw the fastest Upload Speed Experience across all types of rural locales compared with users connecting with AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint. Verizon users experienced speeds of 5.4 Mbps, 3.7 Mbps and 3.7 Mbps in Fringe, Distant and Remote rural areas.
Across all of the rural U.S. our AT&T users on average experienced lower latencies than their peers on other networks. Even small latency differences affect the experience of real-time applications like multiplayer games. For example, our Verizon rural users experienced latencies between 3.7 and 4.5 milliseconds slower compared with users on AT&T in rural locales, while our T-Mobile users’ latencies were between 4.9 and 8.8 milliseconds slower.
Across the rural U.S. Sprint users had a weaker mobile network experience in all of our metrics compared with our users on other networks. After the T-Mobile-Sprint merger completes, the new company will aim to transition rural Sprint users to a stronger experience — Opensignal will monitor how the new company’s mobile experience changes.
Rural areas cover 97% of the US land area
The U.S. is home to some of the most iconic city destinations in the world, such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco. But 97% of the U.S. land area — almost the entirety of the country — is actually rural. About 60 million people — 19.3% of the population — live in rural regions, where getting a mobile signal is not always a given. However, not all rural areas are equal for mobile experience. In fact, distance to urban areas is a key factor determining the experience rural users will have.
Opensignal has analyzed smartphone users’ mobile experience in the rural U.S.
We used the locale framework developed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which classifies all U.S. territory into four types of areas — City, Suburban, Town and Rural. Rural areas are further divided into three subtypes based on proximity to urban areas: Fringe, Distant and Remote locales.
(Rural locales’ definitions are available in the Methodology section)
Verizon users experience the highest 4G Availability across all rural US regions
Opensignal analyzed the proportion of time our rural U.S. users could access mobile services and found that distance to urban areas was a key factor in determining whether users were able to spend more time connected to 4G networks. However, our rural 4G users could on average spend the vast majority of their time connected to 4G across all rural regions, even in those locations far away from densely populated areas.
On average, our 4G users on Verizon’s network enjoyed the highest rural 4G Availability in all rural regions and were the only ones who spent more than 80% of their time on 4G networks across all types of rural area, even in the Remote rural areas.
Opensignal’s users on T-Mobile’s network were our only other users in the Fringe rural areas, apart from Verizon’s, who spent more than 90% of the time connected to 4G. Our T-Mobile rural users in Distant and Remote areas on average spent less time connected to 4G networks compared to our Verizon users, but enjoyed a higher 4G Availability than both our AT&T and Sprint users.
Our rural AT&T users experienced a lower 4G Availability than both our Verizon and T-Mobile users in all three rural locales. However, with increasing distance to well-connected urban areas, the gap in 4G Availability compared with our rural T-Mobile users reduced.
Our Sprint rural users experienced the lowest 4G Availability in all three locales compared with their peers on the other three networks. Although they faced the highest change in 4G Availability between Fringe and Remote locales, on average they could still connect to 4G networks more than two-thirds of the time even in the Remote areas.
AT&T and T-Mobile rural users have a faster Download Speed Experience
Our smartphone users in the rural U.S. saw their Download Speed Experience degrade as distance to urban areas increased. Most of our users experienced average download speeds close to 20 Mbps in the Fringe locales, decreasing on average by 4.8 Mbps in Distant locations, and an additional 1.3 Mbps in Remote rural areas.
Despite our AT&T and T-Mobile users spending relatively less time on 4G networks than our Verizon users, they enjoyed either a faster, or similar, Download Speed Experience across the three rural locales than users on Verizon. But our Sprint users saw slower average overall download speeds across the whole rural U.S. compared to the other three operators.
Opensignal rural users in the Fringe areas enjoyed average download speeds faster than 15 Mbps, with our AT&T and T-Mobile users experiencing speeds just above 20 Mbps. Our Verizon users saw slightly slower average download speeds of 19.5 Mbps, while our Sprint users experienced a much slower average of 15.1 Mbps.
Our users in Distant rural areas experienced the least difference in overall download speeds across the four operators, with just 2.5 Mbps separating the fastest and slowest average speeds. On the other hand, our users in Remote rural locales saw the largest difference of 5.4 Mbps across the four operators’ average Download Speed Experience indicating how mobile network experience varies across different types of rural U.S.
Verizon rural users enjoy the fastest Upload Speed Experience
Opensignal observed Upload Speed Experience deteriorating for our users as distance from urban areas increased, similar to our other mobile network experience metrics. However, while users had a significant change in Upload Speed Experience in Distant compared to Fringe rural areas, they experienced little deterioration in average speeds when in Remote compared to Distant rural locations.
Our Verizon rural users experienced faster average upload speeds in all three rural locales, topping 5.4 Mbps in Fringe locations and 3.7 Mbps in both Distant and Remote areas.
Opensignal’s T-Mobile users on average enjoyed the second-fastest Upload Speed Experience in the Fringe locale, but they experienced similar average upload speeds to our AT&T users (just shy of 3 Mbps) in the Distant and Remote locales.
Our Sprint users experienced slower upload speeds on average compared with the other operators. However, the average Upload Speed Experience of our Sprint users across rural locales was mostly in line with the operator’s national overall upload speed score of 2.4 Mbps. This indicates Sprints’ users experienced similar average upload speeds across all of its network, whether in urban or rural areas.
AT&T rural users have the most responsive Latency Experience
Our users who accessed mobile data services in rural U.S. experienced a longer delay in their connections than in urban areas, with networks requiring more time to respond to users’ data requests, as distance from urban areas increased. On average, most of our rural users saw a Latency Experience score below 60 milliseconds in the Fringe areas, worsening by an average 9.8 and 20.4 milliseconds in the Distant and Remote rural locales.
Our AT&T rural users experienced better average latencies than their peers using other networks in all three types of rural locales. While our Verizon rural users generally saw latency scores between 3.7 and 4.5 milliseconds slower compared with AT&T’s in the three rural locales, our T-Mobile users on average had to wait between 4.9 and 8.8 additional milliseconds.
Our Sprint rural users on average experienced the slowest latencies in all three rural locales, which were respectively 7, 8.3 and 17 milliseconds slower than AT&T’s in the Fringe, Distant and Remote areas.
Even these small differences in latency can have a significant effect on real-time applications such as video chat or multiplayer online games. Besides, latency also affects simple mobile tasks like web browsing because of the number of separate files which a smartphone browser must successfully request from a server before showing the user a complete web page.
In order to analyze mobile experience in the rural U.S., Opensignal used the locale framework developed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
The NCES locale framework classifies all territory in the U.S. into four types of areas — City, Suburban, Town, and Rural. Each area is divided into three subtypes based on population size (in the case of City and Suburban assignments) and proximity to urban areas (in the case of Town and Rural assignments). The classifications rely on standard urban and rural designations defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, and each type of locale is either urban or rural in its entirety.
• Rural – Fringe: Census-defined rural territory that is less than or equal to 5 miles from an Urbanized Area, as well as rural territory that is less than or equal to 2.5 miles from an Urban Cluster.
• Rural – Distant: Census-defined rural territory that is more than 5 miles but less than or equal to 25 miles from an Urbanized Area, as well as rural territory that is more than 2.5 miles but less than or equal to 10 miles from an Urban Cluster.
• Rural – Remote: Census-defined rural territory that is more than 25 miles from an Urbanized Area and also more than 10 miles from an Urban Cluster.