State of Mobile Networks: USA (August 2016)

It’s safe to say that LTE is now the most important mobile technology in the U.S. LTE accounts for the vast majority of data connections and an increasing amount of voice traffic. But the ascension of 4G has also resulted in a shakeup among the traditional powers of the U.S. mobile industry. Through its LTE network, T-Mobile is now challenging AT&T and Verizon’s dominance, while Sprint’s 4G service is the source of its continued struggles. In our 2nd installment of the State of Mobile Networks report for the U.S., we drew on 2.8 billion measurements collected by 120,000 OpenSignal users to compare the nationwide and regional performance of the country's four major operators.


T-Mobile inches ahead of Verizon in our LTE speed tests

It was a close contest, but T-Mobile walked away with OpenSignal's award for fastest LTE speeds, averaging 16.3 Mbps in our summer download tests. Verizon, however, was hot on T-Mobile's heels as OpenSignal users saw average speeds of 15.9 Mbps over Verizon’s LTE connections. Both operators far outpaced Sprint and AT&T, neither of which averaged downloads greater than 13 Mbps in our tests.

Verizon ranks highest in our LTE availability scores

Though Verizon is facing challengers in many of the metrics we measure, the nation’s biggest operator stood apart in our 4G network availability category, which measures the proportion of time customers can see an LTE signal. Our Verizon-network testers were able to make LTE connections 86% of the time during our measurement period.

T-Mobile surpasses AT&T in our LTE availability rankings

T-Mobile leapfrogged AT&T in our 4G availability metric. We found T-Mobile's customers were able to access an LTE signal 83% of the time in OpenSignal’s user tests, compared to 80% of the time for AT&T customers.

GSM operators maintain their 3G speed edge

In the increasingly rare situations in which customers are forced onto 3G networks, our data found AT&T and T-Mobile's HSPA networks definitely held the advantage over Verizon and Sprint's CDMA services. T-Mobile had the fastest 3G download speeds in our user tests at 4.6 Mbps, while we measured average speeds no faster than 1 Mbps on Sprint and Verizon’s 3G connections.

Opensignal Awards Table

Download Speed: 4G Download Speed: 3G Download Speed: Overall Latency: 4G Latency: 3G Availability: 4G





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Performance by Metric

Download Speed: 4G

This metric shows the average download speed for each operator on LTE connections as measured by Opensignal users.

Download Speed: 3G

This metric shows the average download speed for each operator on 3G connections as measured by Opensignal users.

Download Speed: Overall

This metric shows the average download speed experienced by Opensignal users across all of an operator's 3G and 4G networks. Overall speed doesn't just factor in 3G and LTE speeds, but also the availability of each network technology. Operators with lower LTE availability tend to have lower overall speeds because their customers spend more time connected to slower 3G networks.

Latency: 4G

This metric shows the average latency for each operator on LTE connections as measured by Opensignal users. Latency, measured in milliseconds, is the delay data experiences as it makes a round trip through the network. A lower score in this metric is a sign of a more responsive network.

Latency: 3G

This metric shows the average latency for each operator on 3G connections as measured by Opensignal users. Latency, measured in milliseconds, is the delay data experiences as it makes a round trip through the network. A lower score in this metric is a sign of a more responsive network.

Availability: 4G

This metric shows the proportion of time Opensignal users have an LTE connection available to them on each operator’s network. It's a measure of how often users can access a 4G network rather than a measure of geographic or population coverage.

Regional Performance

This chart shows the regional winners in each category Opensignal measures. Click on the icons to see a more detailed graph showing each operator’s metrics in a particular region.

Legend: AT&T Sprint T-Mobile Verizon
RegionDownload Speed: 4GAvailability: 4G
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell
Austin-Round Rock
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land
Kansas City
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington
New York-Newark-Jersey City
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario
San Antonio-New Braunfels
San Diego-Carlsbad
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara
St. Louis
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater

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The battle lines are shifting in the U.S. mobile market. For more than a decade Verizon and AT&T have been the dominant operators in the U.S., but in the last few years, T-Mobile has reemerged as a viable competitor to the country's two mega-carriers. Using spectrum gained in the aftermath of AT&T's failed attempt to take over the then 4th-place operator, T-Mobile launched its first LTE service in 2013, three years after the mobile broadband technology’s debut in the U.S. In those three years, T-Mobile has undergone a remarkable transformation. It passed Sprint in total subscribers last year, and our data indicates T-Mobile is now challenging the nation's two mobile behemoths in network performance.

By OpenSignal's measurements, nowhere has that resurgence been more pronounced than in our most recent test period. T-Mobile won top awards for four out of the six network metrics we tested for — including all three speed categories — in a 71-day interval this spring and summer. While T-Mobile for some time has been contesting the top spot for speed, the big surprise was the rapid improvement in T-Mobile’s LTE availability that we saw in our data. Our users found Verizon is still the leader when it comes to providing a consistent LTE signal, but T-Mobile surpassed AT&T in 4G availability in our latest tests and is now closing the gap with Verizon. (Though AT&T and T-Mobile sometimes refer to HSPA as 4G, OpenSignal defines 4G as LTE only. We use the two terms interchangeably throughout this report.)

In our newest State of Mobile Networks report for the U.S., OpenSignal compared 2.8 billion tests conducted by OpenSignal users across the four major U.S. operators. Starting in May, OpenSignal made some adjustments to both the way we collect data from our smartphone apps and the methodology we use to parse that data. The update allows us to make more measurements, examine new types of network metrics and hone the precision of the measurements we've always collected, helping us isolate the typical consumer mobile experience more effectively (for more details, see our recent blog post). The changes haven't affected our overall rankings of networks around the world, but for sake of analytical rigor we aren't making any direct comparisons between results collected from the two different methodologies.

For this report we also took a much deeper dive into regional results than we have in the past. We examined 4G speed and availability in 31 major U.S. metro areas to see how how the operators compared on a city-by-city basis. First, let's take a look at how U.S. operators fared in speed.

A tight race for the speed crown

T-Mobile won OpenSignal's 4G speed award in our latest results, but just barely. It averaged downloads of 16.3 Mbps in OpenSignal’s tests, but second-place Verizon was close behind with an average speed of 15.9 Mbps. The two operators have been locked in a 4G speed battle for the last several years. For instance, in our last U.S. report we recorded a draw for Verizon and T-Mobile in 4G speeds. In the current test period, the statistical margins separating the two results were razor thin, but our measurements found T-Mobile scored the win.

We saw that competitiveness reflected in our regional results as well. In our breakdown of 31 large metro markets, T-Mobile won our award for fastest 4G speed outright in 6 cities, including New York City (20.4 Mbps), while Verizon won the LTE speed metric in 7 cities, including Los Angeles (20.0 Mbps) and San Francisco (21.6 Mbps). In 11 other markets, Verizon and T-Mobile both contested the award for fastest speeds, but the results were close enough to produce statistical ties. And in all but one of the remaining 7 metro areas, either T-Mobile or Verizon (often both) had a share of our speed award due to three-way draws with AT&T and Sprint.

Though AT&T didn't factor in the close-fought battle for top speed nationally, we still recorded a respectable 12.8 Mbps average speed for Ma Bell nationally. It also put on some good performances regionally, winning our fastest LTE speed metric in one city (Austin) and tying for first in six more. Meanwhile, Sprint is still struggling to catch up with its competitors in LTE performance. OpenSignal tests on Sprint’s network found average 4G download speeds of 9.4 Mbps. Sprint has been making upgrades to its networks intended to boost its bandwidth, but so far those improvements don't appear to be having a big impact on the network speeds our users measure. Sprint, however, did make a showing in two of the cities we examined, tying for our 4G speed award in Cincinnati and Denver.

3G data services are increasingly becoming a non-factor in the U.S. as LTE coverage spreads and consumers increasingly upgrade to 4G-capable devices, but on the occasions customers are forced to contend with a 3G connection, T-Mobile and AT&T subscribers were at a distinct advantage. Our users measured speed three to five times faster on those operators’ HSPA connections than on Verizon and Sprint’s CDMA EV-DO connections. T-Mobile won our 3G speed award, averaging downloads of 4.6 Mbps in our tests, while AT&T came in second with an average download speed of 3.0 Mbps.

As T-Mobile had both the fastest and 4G and 3G connections in our tests, it won our overall speed award with an aggregated download metric of 14.0 Mbps. Though Verizon had the slowest 3G connections in the country, it didn't have much bearing on its overall speed tests. Verizon was hot on T-Mobile's heels with an overall speed of 13.5 Mbps. Because of its superior 4G signal availability Verizon customers rarely had to resort to its sluggish CDMA network.

The long arm of T-Mobile

Once again, Verizon cemented its place at the top of our rankings when it came to providing a consistent LTE signal. But it's facing an increasingly aggressive challenger in network availability, and it's not Verizon’s traditional arch-rival AT&T; instead it's T-Mobile.

Rather than measure geographical coverage, OpenSignal's availability metric tracks the percentage of time customers can access a particular network, whether they're indoors or out, in the city or the countryside, moving or stationary. On Verizon's network, OpenSignal users were able to latch onto an LTE signal 86% of the time. T-Mobile, however, was less than 3 percentage points behind Verizon. Our users were able to get an LTE connection 83% of the time on T-Mobile’s 4G network. In our test period, T-Mobile leapfrogged over AT&T, for which we measured LTE availability at 80%.

T-Mobile's recent gains shouldn't come entirely as a shock. For the last year, T-Mobile has been dispensing with the notion that it’s merely an urban-focused operator by building new 4G networks in rural areas. It's also made use of recently acquired 700 MHz airwaves to give those networks more reach. 700 MHz's low frequencies mean signals propagate further in rural areas and penetrate deeper into buildings in urban areas — two factors that help explain its rising availability ranking.

Still, T-Mobile has some work ahead of it if it wants to match Verizon signal for signal. In our regional analysis, we found Verizon clearly dominated the availability charts. Verizon won our best availability award outright in 17 of the 31 metro areas we examined, and in the remaining 14 markets, Verizon shared 1st prize with either T-Mobile or AT&T due to statistical ties. Our data may show that T-Mobile is in the race for best 4G availability, but Verizon is still clearly the operator to beat.

As with 4G speed, Sprint was a distant fourth in 4G availability in our measurements. OpenSignal users could access the Sprint LTE network only 70% of the time. But there was one area where Sprint did shine brightly: network responsiveness. Our latency metric measures the reaction time a customer experiences when accessing mobile internet services. A low-latency connection means web pages begin rendering more quickly and customers experience less lag time in real-time communications apps like VoIP and video chat. Sprint led all operators with the lowest (best) 4G latency of 57 milliseconds in our tests. our users found that T-Mobile had the most responsive 3G network, measuring its latency at 99ms.

Looking for a 4G edge

If there is one thing clear from this report, it's that T-Mobile is challenging the established powers in the U.S. mobile market, putting its resources to bear in building both high-performance and highly accessible mobile broadband networks. Whether T-Mobile can keep up the pressure remains to be seen. Verizon and the Un-carrier are neck and neck in LTE speed, and while T-Mobile continues to improve its 4G availability, the other operators aren't exactly standing still. There's a massive spectrum refarming campaign going on the U.S., as every operator looks to scavenge old 2G and 3G airwaves to breath new capacity and reach into their 4G networks.

One of the biggest new developments in the U.S. mobile market is taking place as this report goes to publication. The Federal Communications Commission is auctioning off as much as 126 MHz of TV spectrum to mobile operators. Those 600 MHz airwaves will be the lowest-frequency airwaves to which operators will have ever had access, allowing them to build far-spanning networks. In addition, the new capacity that spectrum will bring will let operators boost speeds and design powerful new LTE-Advanced systems like the ones we're seeing deployed across Europe and Asia. But the FCC has set a minimum price for those airwaves of $88.6 billion, so who gets that spectrum — and who gains the advantage in the next round of 4G wars — may largely depend on who's willing to write the biggest check.

Our Methodology

Opensignal measures the real-world experience of consumers on mobile networks as they go about their daily lives. We collect 3 billion individual measurements every day from tens of millions of smartphones worldwide.

Our measurements are collected at all hours of the day, every day of the year, under conditions of normal usage, including inside buildings and outdoors, in cities and the countryside, and everywhere in between. By analyzing on-device measurements recorded in the places where subscribers actually live, work and travel, we report on mobile network service the way users truly experience it.

We continually adapt our methodology to best represent the changing experience of consumers on mobile networks and, therefore, comparisons of the results to past reports should be considered indicative only. For more information on how we collect and analyze our data, see our methodology page.

For this particular report, 2,818,124,916 datapoints were collected from 120,586 users during the period: 2016-05-01 - 2016-07-10.

For every metric we've calculated statistical confidence intervals and plotted them on all of the graphs. When confidence intervals overlap for a certain metric, our measured results are too close to declare a winner in a particular category. In those cases, we show a statistical draw. For this reason, some metrics have multiple operator winners.

Opensignal Limited retains ownership of this report including all intellectual property rights, data, content, graphs & analysis. Reports produced by Opensignal Limited may not be quoted, reproduced, distributed, published for any commercial purpose (including use in advertisements or other promotional content) without prior written consent.