4G has the potential to be a completely different animal from 3G in terms of coverage and speed from the various wireless carriers. This article takes a look at current coverage, average speeds across locations, and finally, future plans from the four major wireless telcos in the United States: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile.
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of the article, I’d like to define 4G. 4G, as defined by IMT-2000 standards, has a theoretical max of 100mbps download and 50mbps upload. In the real world, you will never get 100% of those speeds, but it should be possible to get fairly close. The highest I've personally seen is around 70mbps download and around 40mbps upload. Note however that once 4G becomes more mainstream, expect to see speeds much lower than that as there will be more people using it.
Personally, though, as long as I can get around 20mbps download and half that upload, I will be a happy camper as I’m not sure what you could possibly need the extra speed for, especially with the pathetic caps most carriers are introducing. The four carriers will be ranked based on speed, coverage, and known future plans for expansion. (Note that these are my opinions only.)
First Place: Verizon
That map says a lot. As of today, Verizon is in 230 markets covering some 2/3rds of the entire US population. Verizon has been extremely aggressive with its 4G rollout, as you’ll see when we take a look at where other carriers are currently at. The coverage however, is only part of the story. Coverage is useless if the speed isn’t there.
The bad news is that speeds are highly variable and mostly based on your signal strength, or how far away you are from a cell tower. The good news, however, is that as long as you’ve got decent signal strength, the average result seems to be around 30mbps down and 8-10mbps up. That is the average of what I have seen in various “Post your speed test results” threads on various forums, so yours may be higher or it may be lower. According to Speedtest.net however, the average speed is 15mbps download and 5mbps upload. Keep in mind that the results may be skewed to the lower end of what they actually should be due to the fact that people who are experiencing poor speeds are more likely to keep taking multiple speed tests to get faster results.
It will be interesting to see if these speeds are maintained as more people buy 4G enabled devices. The only downside is that Verizon has a 2GB cap. They do have a "promotion" going on that doubles data to 4GB for no extra charge. Hopefully this "promotion" becomes the standard data cap. Verizon is continuing with its aggressive 4G rollout, and by the end of 2012, they expect to be in 400 markets covering 260 million people.
Second Place: AT&T
Although AT&T comes in second place, I’d say that it is a very distant second. Compared to Verizon’s 230 markets, AT&T has a grand total of 32 markets (AT&T dropped us a line to state the company actually serves 38 markets with the recent addition of numerous markets including New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Naples). The good news however is that AT&T seems to be on par, and often a tad bit faster than Verizon. The average seems to be around 40-50mbps download and anywhere from 10-25mbps upload.
Perhaps that is so that they can keep claiming that they're the "fastest network" because they sure as heck can't claim they have more coverage
yet anyway. It could also be a consequence of there not being as many people on AT&Ts network as Verizon’s. AT&T recently expanded to 11 new markets upon the introduction of the new iPad, and plans to cover a good majority of its network footprint by 2013. If you live in a smaller city, it might be wise to jump to Verizon if you really, really want 4G. Otherwise, you might be waiting a year or more for AT&T to bring it to your city.
Third Place: Sprint
Ouch. As you can read above, Sprint currently does not offer true 4G. Instead, they rely on WiMax. WiMax, while better than traditional 3G, does not hold a candle to what Verizon and AT&T are doing. I could show a map of WiMax coverage, but this is an article about 4G, not WiMax and not AT&T’s fake 4G which is basically HSPA+. The speed of WiMax is generally less than 10mbps down, and often closer to 5mbps, and 1-2mbps up. A positive point however is that Sprint currently does not have any caps on their WiMax service. We’ll see if they’re kind enough to carry that over to their 4G offering.
The good news is that Sprint is aggressively planning its 4G rollout, which is expected to debut sometime this month
and initially cover 123 million Americans, and completing the rollout by 2013 covering 250 million Americans. Sprint is the one to watch in my opinion. If they can deliver on their rollout promises, offer competitive speeds, and keep unlimited data (or at least offer a more reasonable cap than 2GB), they might come out on top.
Fourth Place: T-Mobile
T-Mobile, similar to Sprint, does not currently offer true 4G. T-Mobile’s current "4G" is the same as the fake 4G that AT&T tried to introduce to customers before they started their true 4G rollout, which is essentially a beefed up HSPA+. Speeds are similar to Sprint’s WiMax, topping out at around 10mbps down and 2mbps up. T-Mobile is expected to rollout its 4G network starting in 2013 and is expected to reach the "vast majority" of the top 50 markets, whatever that means. I think what that means in non-corporate speak is that it will be similar to their 3G coverage. However, if you are in a market the T-Mobile covers well, the price is hard to beat. That is assuming they don’t increase price for 4G.This article is part of an effort to solicit content from the Broadband Reports community. If you'd like to participate, please contact us