Who really gives you the fastest download speeds in the US? According to a new report on America's mobile networks from OpenSignal, the answer is T-Mobile. The carrier easily took the top spot when it came to downloads on 3G (an average speed of 3.5 Mbps compared to second place AT&T’s 2.2 Mbps), and just narrowly clinched the top spot for 4G (12.3 Mbps download speeds compared to Verizon’s 12 Mbps). Both Verizon and Sprint performed pretty badly on 3G (0.7 Mbps and 0.6 Mbps respectively), while AT&T and Sprint did marginally better on 4G (7.9 Mbps and 6.6 Mbps respectively).
Average LTE download speed in the US was 9.9 Mbps
To keep these figures in context, the average download speed on an LTE network in the US was 9.9 Mbps — fine for loading web pages and keeping your apps ticking over, but short of the global average of 13.5 Mbps and well behind top performers like New Zealand and Singapore (average LTE speeds of 36 Mbps and 33 Mbps respectively in last year’s report). The US does make up for this in terms of coverage, though, with subscribers getting an LTE signal 81 percent of the time — putting it in the top 10 worldwide, impressive for such a large nation.
T-Mobile was also particularly successful when it came to coverage. The carrier has previously lagged behind its rivals, but as part of CEO John Legere’s ambitious and often bombastic campaign to remake "the Uncarrier," it has improved its LTE coverage to 81 percent — up from 61 percent at the beginning of 2014. That’s still behind AT&T (82 percent) and Verizon (86 percent), but ahead of Sprint (70 percent). Coverage in this case is based on the amount of time subscribers have an LTE signal available to them — not necessarily geographic availability.
OpenSignal's report gave T-Mobile the most plaudits. (Image Credit: OpenSignal)
OpenSignal, which collects its data via a network testing app installed by its 181,927 US users, notes that T-Mobile’s recent gains are partly thanks to the carrier’s decision to cannibalize its own 2G network, giving that portion of spectrum over to LTE instead. "The majority of voice calls still go over 2G networks, but as US operators move that traffic over to LTE they can start shutting down 2G networks and use that spectrum for [LTE]," says OpenSignal’s report.
The US needs more spectrum to get faster LTE speeds — but that will be a while
However, if the US wants to improve its LTE speeds further, what it needs is more spectrum. This could be on the way, with the FCC planning to sell off some of the 600-MHz band previously used for long range broadcast TV. An auction for these low frequencies will kick off on March 29th this year, but the spectrum’s current occupiers — local TV stations mostly — won’t have to move on to different airwaves for another 39 months. Basically, progress is going to be slow whenever it happens.