T-Mobile edges out AT&T in rural 4G availability, Opensignal results show

When it comes to wireless service in rural America, Verizon took the crown for 4G availability and upload speeds, according to new Opensignal data, while AT&T led for fastest downloads. T-Mobile notably nabbed second place for all three, edging out each of its two biggest rivals in rural areas in at least one key network metric.  

In the wireless world, much attention lately has been on early 5G networks and superfast speeds seen with newly launched millimeter wave networks in dense urban areas. But, as Opensignal Senior Technical Analyst Francesco Rizzato pointed out in the company’s new analysis, 97% of the U.S. land area is actually rural and home to about 60 million people, or 19.3% of the population.

Unsurprisingly, just how rural customers' locations are significantly impact the kind of 4G service they experience. Opensignal broke its rural category down to rural fringe, rural distant, and rural remote, based on how far users were from an urbanized area or cluster. Metrics declined across all four carriers the farther the distance from urban areas, though rural 4G users still spend a large majority of the time on 4G, according to Opensignal.

RELATED: Verizon hits high network marks in latest Tutela report

Verizon, which has historically touted its network dominance and coverage, had the best 4G availability across all three rural regions, and was the only carrier not to dip below 80% in remote rural areas. For remote rural areas, Verizon customers were connected to 4G 83.5% of the time, followed by T-Mobile customers who were on a 4G signal 77.4% of the time, AT&T 75.5%, and Sprint significantly below at 67.3%.  

T-Mobile outpacing AT&T in rural 4G availability?

T-Mobile, which has been working to expand network coverage and prepare for 5G with low-band rollouts including 600 MHz, beat out AT&T in 4G availability across all types of rural areas, a result Brian Goemmer, president of Allnet Insights, told FierceWireless he was surprised to hear, given the more robust rural legacy networks of Verizon and AT&T.

“The rural networks that Verizon and AT&T have had for 15 years are matured in terms of site density,” Goemmer said, and that with more sites those two operators, in Goemmer’s opinion, continue to provide better rural coverage.

With T-Mobile’s 700 MHz spectrum the carrier could only reach 75% of the U.S. population he said.

“T-Mobile is in this framework of catching up,” Goemmer said, noting deployments of 600 MHz would have happened in the last year and improvements take time. “It’s not to say T-Mobile isn’t improving,” he added, but acknowledged he “would be shocked” that T-Mobile had passed AT&T in rural 4G availability.

This Opensignal’s first rural-focused analysis, so there isn’t historical rural data to compare improvements or declines in the areas, but Opensignal’s Ian Fogg told FierceWireless that any positive impact on rural mobile experience from T-Mobile’s 600 MHz deployments “would likely be limited” due to the small number of user devices that currently support band.

“Lower frequencies, like 600 Mhz, tend to propagate further and therefore be well suited to providing a rural mobile experience where cell sites are further apart,” Fogg said. “However, newer bands like 600 Mhz need device support as well as deployment by the carrier to improve that carrier’s overall user experience.”

RELATED: T-Mobile to launch 5G on 600 MHz in the second half of 2019

Goemmer, too, noted that handset availability is one of T-Mobile’s challenges in customers’ ability to actually experience a difference from 600 MHz deployments. While Opensignal’s data, collected between March and June, is from user devices primarily via apps that collect data automatically in the background, the report did not look at the proportion of different devices used in rural areas.

Still, Goemmer acknowledged that even if customers don’t own 600 MHz-capable devices, there could be a boost in performance. He noted that when T-Mobile’s 600 MHz signal is deployed, the network has the ability to move some customers over to that 600 MHz and free up additional resources on the 700 MHz portion, which may have been previously congested.

At the end of the second-quarter T-Mobile had turned on its 600 MHz network in nearly 6,600 cities and towns, covering 156 million PoPs, though the carrier did not release coverage maps of its 600 MHz deployments. In February PCMag reported the carrier’s low-band LTE network extended T-Mobile’s coverage in the northern and central U.S., with 600 MHz covering 340 new rural cities and towns.

A July report from Tutela showed that since T-Mobile began its 600 MHz rollout in 2017, Band 71 added a 38% LTE coverage improvement in the state of Wisconsin, 28% in Wyoming and 22% in North Dakota, though the data didn’t provide a more detailed breakdown of locations in each state, including improvements in rural areas.

T-Mobile is still working to secure the green light to merge with Sprint, and committed to expanding mobile access in rural America, arguing a combined company would be able to accelerate greater coverage.

Aside from Verizon, T-Mobile was the only other carrier in Opensignal’s analysis whose customers in fringe rural areas were connected to 4G more than 90% of the time, coming in roughly 3% below Verizon’s fringe rural 4G availability of 95.1%. AT&T and Sprint each neared the 90% 4G availability goalpost in fringe rural regions, with respective scores of 88.8% and 88.2%. AT&T’s 4G availability dropped 8%, and Sprint dropped a full 11% farther out in areas categorized as distant rural. Although coverage diminished, AT&T was able to lessen the gap between itself and T-Mobile the more rural the area.

opensignal rural 4G availability

Download and latency

While AT&T users didn’t connect to 4G as often, their download speeds were the fastest among the four operators, followed closely by T-Mobile in second and Verizon just behind rivals.

Fringe rural users had the fastest speeds, with the three largest carriers delivering average download speeds around 20 Mbps, while Sprint users experienced just over 15 Mbps. Speeds dropped significantly in remote rural areas, with Verizon download speeds differing the most and declining by 7.2 Mbps to 12.3 Mbps. Sprint still lagged behind the top three in remote areas, where users saw average download speeds under 10 Mbps, compared 14.6 Mbps for AT&T and 13.6 Mbps for T-Mobile.

Verizon swept average upload speeds in rural areas, where fringe locations saw speeds of 5.4 Mbps, and distant and remote clocked in at 3.7 Mbps. AT&T and T-Mobile delivered similar upload speeds in distant and remote areas, just under 3 Mbps. Sprint again brought up the rear with upload speeds just over 2 Mbps across rural locations. However, as Rizzato pointed out, Sprint’s rural upload speeds mostly mirror the carrier’s national upload speeds of 2.4 Mbps.

“This indicates Sprints’ users experienced similar average upload speeds across all of its network, whether in urban or rural areas,” Rizzato wrote.

One category where T-Mobile didn’t outpace at least one of its two largest rivals in rural areas was latency. According to Opensignal, AT&T had the best latency scores, with Verizon users generally experiencing between 3.7 and 4.5 milliseconds more lag time, and T-Mobile latency between 4.9 and 8.8 ms slower. Sprint’s average latency score of 88.6 ms in remote rural areas was 17 ms slower than first-place AT&T.

“Even these small differences in latency can have a significant effect on real-time applications such as video chat or multiplayer online games,” Rizzato wrote. “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.”