T-Mobile has the fastest mobile data speeds in
the US, Ookla report reveals
During the past 12 months, improvements in technology and usage of available network spectrum led to a 19% increase in average mobile download speeds in the United States. All four major carriers have boosted download speeds, but not all carriers are improving equally and not all areas of the country are seeing the same benefits. In addition, not all are responding equally to the performance demands of unlimited plans. While progress was made over the last year, the U.S. still lost footing in the global race for fastest mobile internet speeds with a rank slip from 42nd to 44th in the world based on data from Q1-Q2 2017.
The 2017 U.S. Market Report by Ookla is based entirely on Speedtest Intelligence data captured during the first half of 2017. During this period, nearly 3 million unique mobile devices were used to perform over 14 million consumer-initiated cellular network tests. After analyzing these tests we are able to reveal which carrier is the fastest in the nation and in the most populous CMAs, who consistently provides acceptable speeds and how performance in rural areas lags. We also have an unparalleled view into how the speeds at Verizon and AT&T changed for customers after the debut and expansion of the carriers’ respective unlimited plans.
This year Ookla also introduced Speed Score to more accurately reflect the full breadth of networking experience on a given network. Speed Score incorporates low-end, median and top-end performance for both download and upload speed. It’s a comprehensive metric that combines all factors that matter to a good network experience into a single score.
Average mobile download speed in the U.S. increased 19.2% between Q1-Q2 2016 and Q1-Q2 2017 to 22.69 Mbps. That is not as strong as the year-over-year growth of 33% we saw in last year’s report. The U.S. still only ranked 44th in the world for download speed, immediately behind Fiji and Germany and just ahead of Oman for Q1-Q2 2017. Of course, the geographic breadth of the U.S. makes it challenging for its cellular speeds to compete with smaller, more densely populated nations.
Average upload speed over mobile improved a very slight 4.0% from the same period the year before to 8.51 Mbps. This is a much slower improvement than the year prior when we saw a 28% improvement between Q1-Q2 2015 and Q1-Q2 2016. The U.S. ranked 65th in the world for upload speed for Q1-Q2 2017, directly behind Mongolia and ahead of Germany.
Overall speeds for both downloads and uploads dipped when comparing Q1 2017 to Q2 2017. This could be due to decreased performance on some networks because of deprioritization on unlimited data plans. This is discussed more specifically in “How Unlimited Data Affects Performance” below.
Meanwhile, customers in rural areas saw an average download speed of 17.93 Mbps, 20.9% slower than the nation as a whole. Rural areas are Rural Service Areas (RSAs) as defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Country-level speeds are average speeds based on all tests taken during this period, regardless of the device type that was used.
Using the same nationwide lens, Speedtest Intelligence data reveals which carrier is the fastest in the U.S. as a whole. Though this is a country-wide view, carrier rankings remain the same when we limit the analysis to the 100 most populated Cellular Market Areas (CMAs). There are also other important ways to assess networks, including performance in top markets and consistency of acceptable speeds — both of which we explore later in this report.
T-Mobile is the fastest carrier nationwide
T-Mobile has the fastest mobile network in the United States, clocking in with a Speed Score of 23.17 on modern devices during Q1-Q2 2017. The combination of a tightly-spaced cell site grid and a smaller subscriber base than Verizon and AT&T could be the keys to T-Mobile’s success in the U.S. market and to their ability to support the exponential growth in mobile data consumption. Leveraging 700MHz spectrum, T-Mobile has been expanding its LTE footprint into new markets. Additionally, T-Mobile has been aggressively refarming their spectrum, previously used for legacy technologies such as GSM and WCDMA, and committing those assets to the more efficient LTE technology.
With the fastest time-to-market when rolling out advanced LTE features such as Wi-Fi Calling, HD Voice, VoLTE using Enhanced Voice Services Codec, various capacity enablers such as Higher Order Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO), advanced modulation schemes (256QAM), and LTE in the Unlicensed 5GHz band, T-Mobile is in an excellent position to become the first all-LTE mobile carrier in the United States which will allow them to deliver voice and data more efficiently.
Verizon Wireless takes second
Second-place Verizon Wireless, the first LTE carrier in the U.S., has a Speed Score of 21.13 and delivers consistent and reliable performance across its large footprint. Over the past year, Verizon has been doing a lot of work around network densification, installing thousands of small cells in urban and suburban areas, as well as many commercial venues. Utilizing LTE-Advanced technologies like Three Channel Carrier Aggregation, Verizon has been able to maintain solid performance in areas of high traffic, though a drop in performance has been seen since Verizon launched Unlimited.
To fortify network performance, Verizon has started refarming legacy spectrum more aggressively. One example is the New York City market, where Verizon has recently started sunsetting their legacy 3G network in the 1900MHz band and repurposing the entire 1900MHz block for LTE operation. Verizon is already the fastest carrier in New York City and this will only further improve their LTE performance in the months to come.
AT&T comes in third
AT&T was one of the first carriers to adopt LTE in the U.S., but over the past few years the competition has gotten better. Now AT&T ranks third with a Speed Score of 20.05. For the most part, AT&T has managed to keep up with the increased consumption and maintain its performance. But a notable drop in performance coincides with the timing of AT&T’s expansion of their Unlimited Plan and the introduction of their Unlimited Choice Plan, which caps subscriber speeds at 3 Mbps with unlimited data usage, the impact of which is discussed later in this report.
That said, AT&T’s network performance has started to improve in the last few months, likely due to their deployment of LTE in the 2300MHz band, 700MHz supplemental downlink and refarming of existing spectrum assets after the recent GSM sunset. AT&T still has a lot of room for incremental capacity gain with rollout of 4×4 MIMO, 256QAM, License Assisted Access (LAA) and other LTE Advanced Pro features.
Sprint finishes in fourth
Though coming in fourth on our rankings for Q1-Q2 2017 with a Speed Score of 15.39, Sprint made significant improvements compared to the same period last year. Between December 2016 and June 2017 the company’s mean download speed on modern devices increased 23.7%. Sprint is well positioned for even more improvement moving forward given its massive 2.5GHz spectrum portfolio. Significantly lower levels of network budget compared to other carriers, low cell site density and a thin fallback LTE layer in the 800MHz and 1900MHz bands created real challenges for Sprint this year. They responded with an impressive bout of creative problem-solving during the past year leading to the deployment of small cells, mini-macros and relay solutions. These moves did improve Sprint’s network performance, but the proliferation of smartphones capable of aggregating multiple component carriers, HPUE (High Performance User Equipment) and 4-branch antenna diversity could be viewed as the forgotten heroes in Sprint’s success — adding much needed efficiency. Sprint still has a lot of room for improvement, and a lot of opportunities for tapping into its treasure trove of 2.5GHz spectrum.
Performance on popular devices
Even when comparing the performance on two popular modern phones, our national rankings hold. We received test results from 250,278 Apple iPhone 7 devices and 134,742 Samsung Galaxy S7 devices during Q1-Q2 2017. Carrier rankings remain the same, but the Speed Scores on these newer devices are higher, because they are capable of aggregating three component carriers, which improves peak and average speeds. The performance of the Samsung Galaxy S7 improves even further on T-Mobile’s network, as both the device and the network have advanced LTE features enabled such as higher order modulation and 4-Layer MIMO.
When analyzing fastest carriers, we consider all carriers with 3% or more of total test samples in the market for the period. We then determine the fastest carrier using Speed Score which incorporates a measure of each provider’s download and upload speed to rank network speed performance (90% of the final Speed Score is attributed to download speed and the remaining 10% to upload speed). The Speed Score uses a modified trimean to demonstrate the download and upload speeds that are available across a provider’s network. We take speeds from the 10th percentile, 50th percentile (also known as the median), and 90th percentile, and combine them in a weighted average using a 1:2:1 ratio, respectively. We place the most emphasis on the download speeds and median speeds as those represent what most network providers’ customers will experience on a day-to-day basis.
With over 14 million cellular network mobile test results in the U.S. during Q1-Q2 2017, Speedtest is everywhere people live and work. The maps below show the extent of Speedtest results in the U.S. and where we saw tests for each carrier. Comparing these maps to the coverage maps for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, we can see that the presence of Speedtest results is a reasonable proxy for mobile coverage in any given area.
Comparing Speeds in Urban Areas
Nationwide aggregates can’t fully convey a comparison view of performance because not all carriers are in all markets. For this reason, we’ve provided a look at urban areas where significant carrier overlap can reveal information that is relevant to consumers when choosing a carrier.
Using the consumer-initiated data available in Speedtest Intelligence, we looked specifically at mobile performance in the 100 most populated Cellular Market Areas (CMAs), a geographic determination used by the FCC to identify urban Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) and Rural Service Areas (RSAs) within the United States. We calculated a weighted average of each carrier’s Speed Score based on data for modern devices, those capable of LTE speeds, in Q1-Q2 2017.
While the ranking of top providers does not change when focusing only on these most populous CMAs, the gap between first and second shrinks considerably and Speed Scores for all four carriers increase compared to their country-wide numbers. T-Mobile sees the smallest bump at 1.5%, AT&T and Sprint are both up around 3.7-3.8% and Verizon is 7% faster in these urban areas than in the country as a whole.
Although the majority of each carrier’s tests do take place in urban areas, some carriers have a much larger footprint in rural areas than others. The coverage maps above give a sense of this, but the numbers are even more telling. Verizon accounted for a full 51.6% of all samples we saw in rural areas. AT&T made up 27.3%, T-Mobile 11.5% and Sprint 9.6%. Verizon’s rural coverage is laudable. At the same time, their rural market pulls down their nationwide performance numbers because they have that much more market share in areas that are more difficult to serve.
Acceptable Speed Ratio
A mobile download speed of at least 5 Mbps allows a user to do most of the things they expect on their phone. This speed should be fast enough to stream HD movies without buffering, and it’s more than enough to surf the web, connect to social accounts and view most content. For this reason, Ookla developed the “Acceptable Speed Ratio” to measure the percentage of each carrier’s test data samples that equal or exceed the 5 Mbps threshold. While we think fastest speeds are paramount, ensuring a minimum acceptable experience is also a worthy measure of a network’s quality.
When it comes to providing mobile broadband service that’s adequate on a national scale, T-Mobile (78.1%) is slightly ahead of runner-up Verizon Wireless (77.8%). AT&T is a little further behind at 75.9% and Sprint is in last place with only 64.9% of samples showing connections of 5 Mbps or faster.
Taking an urban view by using the same 100 most populous CMAs we examined earlier, Verizon takes first place at 79.8%. T-Mobile comes in second and their Acceptable Speed Ratio actually decreased to 77.9%. The Acceptable Speed Ratios for AT&T and Sprint increase as expected with results of 76.5% and 66.0%, respectively.
From a rural perspective, it’s difficult to accurately compare service among carriers because of the vast difference in rural footprint outlined above. We can, on the other hand, compare the overall national Acceptable Speed Ratio (74.9%) with that in RSAs (69.6%). That means on average all those places in blue on the map above are almost 7% less likely to experience an internet connection that’s acceptably fast. Considering the Acceptable Speed Ratio for all MSAs taken together is 76.2%, there’s a strict divide in the consistency customers in more populated areas can expect from their internet experience versus what those in rural areas can.
How Unlimited Data Affects Performance
There’s been a lot written about the network impact to AT&T and Verizon Wireless following their respective launches of unlimited data plans in February of 2017. We compared Speedtest data on download speeds from before (Q4 2016) and after (Q2 2017) these unlimited plans were widely released to get a good picture of what speeds were like after both companies had sufficient time to onboard customers to the new plans.
Our data shows that in the case of Verizon and AT&T, the percentage of test results with the lowest-end download speeds (those under 5 Mbps) shot up compared to the period before these unlimited data plans were widely available. For comparison, both T-Mobile and Sprint are seeing the opposite effect in the same time period where fewer results are below 5 Mbps in Q2 2017 than they were in Q4 2016.
Are some heavy data users being deprioritized? Both Verizon and AT&T say unlimited customers may experience reduced speeds if customers exceed 22 GB in a month and the cell site is congested. Just six months later Verizon is reinforcing that policy alongside new video optimization policies. AT&T on the other hand launched their Unlimited Choice plan in March 2017 which sets a maximum data speed of 3 Mbps. Whether these carriers are deprioritizing customers or customers are flocking to slower, more budget-friendly plans, both AT&T and Verizon are seeing an increase of customers experiencing speeds less than 5 Mbps.
Others have argued that these networks may be saturated. However, if they were, we’d expect to see the number of tests at every level of speed decrease. Our data does not bear this out and it seems likely we’re seeing reduced performance due to high usage de-prioritization and consumer plan choice.
Fastest Carriers by City
For overall city averages, we looked at download and upload speeds across all devices.
Fort Wayne, Indiana had the fastest average mobile download speeds on all devices during Q1-Q2 2017. Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Atlanta and Pittsburgh round out the top five fastest cities for mobile downloads. North Las Vegas, Nevada, the city with the slowest download speed on the list, was 32.2% slower than the national average. Laredo, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada; Newark, New Jersey and Aurora, Colorado were the cities with the second, third, fourth and fifth slowest download speeds, respectively.
The fastest upload speeds we saw were in Minneapolis, San Francisco, St. Paul, Honolulu and Atlanta. With a download speed that’s 33.3% slower than the country as a whole, Laredo, Texas had the slowest upload speeds of all the cities we looked at. Aurora, Colorado; Boise, Idaho; Denver, Colorado and Memphis, Tennessee rounded out the bottom five cities with the slowest download speeds.
This year we evaluated performance from the standpoint of fastest speeds and also additional angles, because nationwide speed isn’t everything. Mobile performance in the U.S. is improving, but not uniformly. T-Mobile comes out on top for overall speeds and acceptable speeds at a national level and provides the fastest service in 40% of the largest cities in the U.S. Verizon Wireless has the fastest service in many of the cities we looked at and comes in first on acceptable speeds in the top 100 CMAs, but we suspect their use of deprioritization on Unlimited could be bringing down their overall performance. AT&T falls near the bottom in consistency of acceptable speeds and also saw a spike in low end speeds in Q2 2017. The slowest carrier, Sprint, struggles with consistently providing acceptable speeds but saw big gains in the first half of the year.
Mobile data consumption is expected to continue to grow over the next year, and carriers will need to find creative ways to increase the spectral efficiency of their networks. In order to deliver more bits per second per hertz, mobile network operators will have to continue densifying their networks by adding more cell sites, enable key features such as 4-Layer MIMO and higher order modulation, and accelerate the use of greenfield licensed and unlicensed bands. In addition, backhaul provisioning and infrastructure vendor rate limiting licenses will likely have to be boosted to support faster data rates.
At the same time, consumers will be looking for features that meet their needs, whether that’s T-Mobile’s or Sprint’s free international roaming or the large LTE footprints of Verizon Wireless and AT&T. Customers will also be looking for straight-forward policies including unlimited data plans that offer accessibility and speed. While all four carriers currently offer unlimited data plans, they all limit users in some way.
Most importantly, smartphones have a key role to play in network efficiency. Highly efficient devices with 4-branch antenna diversity and sophisticated RF Front End will continue to proliferate the marketplace. Existing Gigabit LTE devices not only deliver the fastest possible speeds to the users, but they can significantly increase the overall spectral efficiency of the networks. It will be in the best interest of carriers to foster adoption of as many of these devices as possible.