Who has the fastest 4G network? PCMag's 30 market test includes Raleigh, Charlotte

mfortner@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2013 

Fast wireless networks have fueled fast-paced mobile innovation. Carriers AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile have aggressively pursued wireless improvements rolling out their 4G LTE networks, and PCMag traveled around the U.S. to see which are the fastest.

Driving more the 20,000 miles PCMag conducted tests in a total of 30 markets in six U.S. regions: Northeast, Southeast, North-Central, South-Central, Northwest and Southwest.

Nationwide, PCMag found that AT&T's 4G LTE network rose to the top with average download speeds of 16.65 Mbps and upload speeds of 7.43 Mbps.

Verizon averaged a respectable 11.93 Mpbs in download speeds and 6.25 Mbps in uploads over its 4G LTE network. Verizon continues to hold its coverage advantage - most notably in rural and suburban areas.

T-Mobile's LTE network was limited to just six of the 30 markets tested, and those areas drew download speeds of 12.07 Mbps and upload speeds of 7.09 Mbps. But areas lacking T-Mobile's LTE depend on the carrier's HSPA+ network which averaged slower download speeds of 7.91 Mbps and upload speeds of 1.42 Mbps.

Sprint's 4G LTE network trailed the other three with its average of 5.55 Mbps for downloads and 2.41 Mbps for uploads. PCMag described the carrier's LTE network coverage as "spotty."

"In our first truly fair fight between LTE networks, AT&T came through with faster upload and download speeds overall than Verizon Wireless, although Verizon offered better reliability and greater rural coverage than its competitor," Segan wrote. "If you’re looking for a fast mobile broadband experience in major and medium-sized cities, AT&T is the best nationwide 4G choice."

Results from North Carolina

In Raleigh and the Triangle, AT&T's and Verizon's LTE networks were both speedy. AT&T's faster download speeds and page loading edged Verizon's slightly better uploads and reliability for the top score for the area. Raleigh was noted as Sprint's fastest LTE city overall with an 11.8 Mbps average for downloads - prompting PCMag to suggest that users of Sprint's pokey 3G should upgrade to 4G.

"The most important thing about a wireless network is how well it performs where you live and work," said Sascha Segan, PCMag.com's lead analyst for mobile. "AT&T's speedy results in Raleigh make its 4G LTE network a great choice for people who live there."

AT&T also topped the scores in Charlotte with fast download speeds and snappy Web page loading. As in most other markets, Verizon delivered fast, but slightly slower performance with better reliability. Sprint's new LTE network in the area outperformed T-Mobile's slower HSPA+.

The final verdict

These carriers have their strengths and weaknesses. The AT&T versus Verizon theme seems very familiar. AT&T has a speed advantage, and Verizon offers wider LTE coverage in suburban and rural areas. Though the battle seems closer than ever. Like Segan says, for consumers, the highest priority in choosing a wireless carrier is how well the service works where they live and work. Consumers can get valuable on-the-ground information from coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family.

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