Editor’s Corner: Is Verizon losing its network advantage?

Monica Alleven

Some folks are wondering lately if Verizon is losing its network edge. For years, the operator has drilled it into people’s heads that it’s got the best network of all the national U.S. wireless carriers.

The word “best” could mean a number of things: widest coverage, fastest downloads, most reliable connections—all of these and more. Earlier this year, Ookla determined that AT&T offered the fastest network at the time of its measurements, and PCMag also declared it America’s fastest network for 2019.

Of course, AT&T is also getting noticed on Wall Street. Analysts at New Street Research, long bearish on AT&T stock, said last week that AT&T’s network is improving, and it seems as if churn is showing early signs of improving too. In fact, they updated their industry models to reflect changes they’re observing, noting: “Verizon is the most exposed because they have the largest share of the market today, and because they compete most directly with AT&T.”

They also noted AT&T’s highest speed score based on Ookla’s tests as well as the PCMag download speeds. “We think the strong postpaid churn result may be the first sign of ongoing improvement from the company’s deployment of FirstNet, AWS-3 and WCS spectrum,” the analysts wrote.

Interestingly, they raised their estimates for AT&T significantly to account for fundamental subscriber improvement from additional spectrum being deployed, which includes FirstNet (700 MHz), AWS-3 (1.7-/2.1 GHz) and WCS (2.3 GHz) spectrum; “taken together we think they provide an excellent combination of coverage and capacity,” wrote the team of analysts led by Jonathan Chaplin.

Spectrum pay-offs for AT&T

It was always a good bet that whoever got the FirstNet contract was getting beachfront spectrum property, but now it appears to be really paying off. New Street noted that AT&T’s spectrum bands were acquired at different times and with different buildout timelines, but they expect all three bands to be fully deployed over time. “The low frequency 700 MHz D Block (FirstNet) provides excellent coverage; mid-band AWS-3 provides good capacity and coverage; and high frequency WCS provides great capacity,” they said. “Taken together, AT&T is building a material capacity advantage over Verizon and T-Mobile.”

RELATED: Verizon not showing signs of worry that T-Mobile is catching up to it on LTE coverage

They’re not the only ones noticing. In a note to investors earlier this month, analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson summed it up this way: “There has been a long-standing preference for Verizon over AT&T, in large measure because the wireless business has been good while AT&T’s other businesses have been bad. But it has also been the case that Verizon’s wireless business has been better than AT&T’s. That meant, for the past few years, that it wasn’t a close call. It was easy to prefer Verizon.

“Now, it’s getting harder. Verizon’s valuation is richer than AT&T’s, of course, and one obviously must take that into account. But it’s more than that. It is also the case that, while the wireless business is still better than the non-wireless businesses at AT&T, it’s no longer clear that Verizon’s wireless business is better than AT&T’s. And, looking forward to 5G, it is easy to imagine that relative advantage reverses,” Moffett wrote.

Moffett and others asked Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg about the carrier's 5G spectrum strategy during the company’s last earnings call, and the answer was pretty much what we’ve been hearing from Big Red. Vestberg once again pointed to the Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) that Verizon expects to use in the first half of next year and, of course, he said he’s not feeling that Verizon is disadvantaged with it comes to spectrum. He reiterated that 5G will use bands other than millimeter wave, as most people in the industry say: 5G needs low, mid and high band, and making more mid-band spectrum for 5G has been a priority for a lot of folks at the FCC and elsewhere, albeit no slam dunk.

This came amid The Verge reporting about Verizon’s “secret plan” around its 5G strategy after T-Mobile CEO John Legere called Verizon’s 5G strategy “dead in the water” during the company’s second-quarter conference call. It’s not exactly a surprise that Verizon plans eventually to reuse already-deployed spectrum for 5G since that is carriers’ usual go-to strategy these days—switching spectrum from an old technology to a newer one. But, the lack of details—perhaps for competitive reasons, perhaps not—is understandably making a lot of people wonder what’s up over there.

RELATED: Verizon not vulnerable in midband spectrum position, CTO says

In an interview soon after Verizon announced its starring role in the P3 Mobile Benchmark USA report, Steve Rice, Verizon’s executive director of service performance, told me that he and his team are focused on what they need to do for their customers, and far from “losing the edge” on network quality; they’re making it better. Verizon also used that bit of news to point out other awards where it’s come out on top from both crowdsourced data and drive testers and re-emphasized the importance of LTE.

Benchmarking firms that I talked with in the intervening time also emphasized that 5G now is only in pockets, and LTE is going to be around for a long, long time. In fact, most of them are not spending a lot of time on 5G right now because there’s so little of it, although they are thinking about metrics that will become increasingly important in a 5G world.

Based on Ookla’s Speedtest Intelligence data, AT&T’s network was performing the fastest in the first half of 2019, with a speed score of 32.91 on modern devices in competitive geographies. That was an increase of 45.1% compared with the first half of 2018. T-Mobile was the second fastest and Verizon Wireless the third fastest. Sprint was the slowest operator, but it did show the second largest year-over-year improvement.

According to Ookla, what paid off for AT&T in its speed score for the first half of 2019 was delivering LTE service over seven licensed frequency bands and increasing the amount of seeded devices capable of four and five carrier aggregation. Over the past year, AT&T managed to “leapfrog the competition” to produce the fastest download speeds across the country, according to Ookla, which also noted that AT&T’s addition of FirstNet spectrum meant a required maintenance visit to cell sites and the addition of brand new hardware at those locations.

“AT&T wisely used this opportunity to also upgrade the existing radio access infrastructure, including replacing aging Alcatel-Lucent equipment with Nokia in some areas and adding the 2.3 GHz WCS spectrum for additional capacity,” Ookla said in its July report. “This strategy, combined with a slew of Category 15-20 LTE smartphones, meant a tremendous boost in coverage, speeds and overall capacity.”

While Ookla gave AT&T the crown for fastest network, it’s also careful not to name anyone with the “best” network, according to Doug Suttles, general manager and co-founder of Ookla. That term is very all encompassing, and they encourage consumers to use what works best for their home, work or commute. Verizon still came out on top in the other two big categories: the highest amount of time spent on LTE and the most consistent experience, also known as acceptable speed ratio.

In its reporting for the first half of 2019, Root Metrics, which uses a combination of drive tests and crowdsourced data, determined that Verizon won in overall network performance and reliability for a 12th consecutive time, sweeping in the six categories it tests.

“Verizon does continue to lead in every category that we tested,” said Doug King, director of business development at Root Metrics. Verizon was one of the first to get out there with LTE Advanced (LTE-A) technology capabilities, and it appears that AT&T is catching up in deploying LTE-A features such as carrier aggregation and 4x4 MIMO—"we’re seeing more of that in this last six-month period than previously,” he said.

Brendan Gill, CEO of Opensignal, said his firm doesn’t specifically call out which network is best overall because that’s such a difficult question and it applies differently to different people. “We look at metrics individually,” he said, adding that it’s a multi-horse race right now.

One area Opensignal is benchmarking—along with download and upload speed, availability and latency—is the quality of mobile video streamed to devices. In a July report, the firm said Verizon seems to have solved the conundrum of how to satisfy consumer desires for unfettered video consumption while maintaining a quality video experience.

In the six months prior, Verizon's video experience score surged upward, making it the only U.S. operator to have earned a “Good” rating in Opensignal's video experience metric, meaning videos streamed to its users' devices loaded faster and played with fewer interruptions than its rivals. “As video is the future of mobile broadband, this gives Verizon a sizable competitive advantage in attracting more consumers to mobile video services,” Opensignal said.

Not a static industry

These benchmark firms are all well aware that nobody is standing still; AT&T and Verizon continue investing in their networks, as does T-Mobile and Sprint, although the latter two are consumed with their proposed merger, which is all about producing a stronger third network. “It’s a dynamic industry,” King said. 

Tom Luke, vice president at Tutela, which collects data from more than 250 million mobile devices by running in the background of over 3,000 third-party apps, said his firm tries to measure how a network is performing for the types of things people want to do with their phones—like watching Netflix or conducting a video call.

If a carrier can claim the fastest average speed, “does that mean they’ve got the best network? Not necessarily,” he said. Another way of looking at it is who can give you an experience to do everything you want to do on your phone most of the time. Most people can’t tell the difference between 20 Mbps or 30 Mbps; they just want to have the best experience possible.

Who tends to come out on top for the U.S.? “Verizon has been on top of our consistent quality reporting consistently,” with variations in different markets, said Chris Mills, head of industry analysis at Tutela.

Even with sophisticated measurement tools—all of which the industry needs to validate what’s what—it may boil down to what’s available in the parts of the country where a given consumer lives, works and travels. Industry analyst Iain Gillott, founder of iGR, summed it up: “I’ve discovered that everybody sucks somewhere, but nobody sucks everywhere.”

Right now, 5G isn’t where most people are working and playing, but that is one big reason people are so curious about Verizon’s 5G spectrum strategy since that correlates to where it’s going to be offering 5G.  

All of which is to say, Verizon has not lost its edge on network competency in 4G. Of course, it risks losing it at any given time, every day, and everybody knows that; it's an evergreen topic as they say. But, that’s the nature of the industry—it’s changing constantly and no one is guaranteed to hold the network crown forever, which is what keeps it so interesting.—Monica @malleven33