T-Mobile ranks first in 4G download speeds, but AT&T leads at regional level - Opensignal

T-Mobile narrowly snagged the top spot for fastest national 4G LTE download speeds since March, but network upgrades drove significant gains for AT&T, which led in regional speed breakdowns, according to Opensignal’s latest report.

While 5G is top of mind, continued investment in LTE-Advanced technologies has improved 4G user experience on all four carriers’ networks across Opensignal’s five metric categories in its Mobile Network Experience: USA Report. The findings are based on 5.6 billion measurements automatically captured on more than 1.4 million devices between March 16 and June 13.

"The race to 5G in the U.S. is increasing competition among operators and the majority of the measurement categories we analyzed within this report have become closely contested three-horse races," said Brendan Gill, CEO of Opensignal, in a statement. "Competition drives innovation and ultimately better consumer experiences. And the technical enhancements operators are making in preparation for the fifth generation of wireless communication are giving us some of the best 4G mobile user experiences as well."

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T-Mobile unseated Verizon for first place in both the download and upload speed experience categories. Opensignal reported download speed experience of 23.6 Mbps for T-Mobile and 7.3 Mbps upload speed experience, compared to 22.9 Mbps download speed for Verizon and 6.9 Mbps upload.

Opensignal download speed chart July 2019

AT&T was hot on rivals’ heels for download speed experience, which Opensignal pegged at 22.5 Mbps – a significant jump up from 15.1 Mbps just six months ago. Sprint meanwhile ranked fourth in both categories with upload speeds of 2.4 Mbps and download speeds of 19.2 Mbps.

Opensignal called AT&T’s ramp-up in download speeds “nothing short of astonishing,” and attributed the gains mainly to the addition of LTE-A technologies (which AT&T received much blowback for dubbing ‘5G E’) like carrier aggregation, supplemental unlicensed  spectrum, and more sophisticated modulation schemes. 

“Although 5G E is more of a marketing term than a true 5G technology, the 4G enhancements it represents have definitely had a real impact on the consumer mobile experience of AT&T’s users,” wrote Opensignal in the report.

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In early January, when AT&T was receiving much criticism for the 5G E campaign, BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk predicted the upgrades with the deployment of 60 MHz of new spectrum this year could help the carrier unseat Verizon as network leader.

According to Opensignal, Capacity and radio upgrades helped AT&T clock the highest average 4G download speeds of 24.6 Mbps, and had the most outright city-level wins at 14, plus 24 additional regional ties for first. This compares to 11 solos wins and 22 draws for T-Mobile, and 13 wins and 26 draws for Verizon.

The reason AT&T ranked third place nationally for download speed experience is because Verizon and T-Mobile continue have better 4G availability. Opensignal didn’t find 4G connections as often on AT&T’s network compared to those two rivals, and the carrier’s network upgrades are concentrated in cities instead of more broadly.

Verizon won first place for 4G availability by a hair with a score of 94.8%, versus T-Mobile in second with a score of 94.2%. AT&T and Sprint tied for third place, both with 4G availability scores just under 90%.  With already extremely high 4G availability and the focus now on 5G, Opensignal said growth in this category appears to be “grinding to a halt entirely.”

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While none of the operators received very high marks for mobile video experience, Verizon led, and managed to move itself into Opensignal’s ‘Good’ rating, while competitors' scores remained in the ‘Fair’ rating. This means users generally experienced less streaming interruptions and faster loading times on Verizon’s network. Opensignal attributed part of Verizon’s win to the operator’s success at finding a balance for managing mobile data traffic with less impact on streaming resolutions.

“Verizon seems to have found a happy — or at least a happier — medium that allows it to maintain a higher level of Video Experience while still limiting the outsized impact of mobile video on its network capacity,” Opensignal wrote.

T-Mobile and AT&T tied for lowest latency, with Opensignal recording just under 53 milliseconds (ms) for both carriers.  Verizon was next with latency at 56.8 ms, followed by Sprint at 59.8 ms.

Again, AT&T’s network upgrades in certain markets helped it clock the lowest individual latency score and have the most outright wins in Opensignal’s city-level analysis. AT&T cut latency to below 40 ms in markets including Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and San Francisco.  

Opensignal’s report is the latest to tout AT&T’s 4G LTE network enhancements.  Earlier this month, Ookla’s SpeedTest report ranked AT&T as the fastest operator in the U.S., citing the addition of FirstNet spectrum and simultaneous upgrades to existing radio access infrastructure.