P3 DATA SPEED REPORT USA

WHAT SPEED DO MOBILE USERS REALLY GET?

The US mobile networks are fast. At least, that’s what we hear every day. But does this reflect the actual user experience? Not always.
In order to understand why the user’s experience sometimes differs from the carriers’ advertisements, we have made a thorough analysis examining the actual speed of data transmissions while consumers use their smart-phones in real life.

Looking at what is happening in reality is very important. How long does it take to drive from home to work very much depends on both road and traffic conditions as well as on the hour of commuting. Asking how fast is your mobile network, will probably lead to the same answer: It depends. Here, the speed experience is related to the general speed capability of the mobile network, to the tariff used plus many other effects. We aim to bring more transparency into the discussion about speed.

Therefore, we have compared the speed of the cellular networks in the United States in a new and differentiated way: We look at the actual speed of data transmissions while consumers use their favorite apps and services. This is significantly different to so-called legacy or traditional speed tests. Those tests are usually based on artificially initiated data transfers – thus, they less represent real life conditions.

We have examined and compared the big four mobile network carriers: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint – the results are presented in this report. It looks at the downlink speed as perceived by the users in our panel in the different urban areas, defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget as so-called Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA).

THE REPORT PROVIDES TWO DIFFERENT VIEWS ON SPEED.

First, we look at the top speeds observed at the fastest locations by the fastest users within an urban area. We call this: Network Top Speed. Here only the fastest samples contribute to the results, thus reflecting which speed users can get regardless of any possible limitations.
Second, we look at the User Speed Experience where we analyze the average speed results as well as the fastest samples of all users.

NETWORK TOP SPEED

From the network’s perspective, it is important what top downlink speed a user can achieve when there is no limitation on the user’s side, e.g. due to device capabilities or tariff restrictions. This is because carriers invest a lot in frequency spectrum, network densification and in upgrading the networks to the latest technology – like carrier aggregation to enable faster data transmissions. The Network Top Speed is a result of network capabilities and coverage, and consequently very much depends on where you use your smartphone. The speed a network shows in one part of the city is not necessarily the same in another part of the city. Therefore, for benchmarking the networks we look at the fastest speed achieved by any user at a measurement location and then do a statistical analysis of all measurement locations in a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) with 472,760,281 samples.
The map shows the different MSAs and marks the leading carrier with respect to network top downlink speed capabilities. The top speeds achieved, averaged over all MSAs, are shown in the bar chart.

Looking at both, the number of MSAs where a carrier delivers higher top speeds than the competition and also at the top speed effectively measured – Verizon clearly leads the Network Top Speed benchmark. With an average Network Top Speed of about 69 Mbit/s, Verizon outperforms the other carriers in 294 metropolitan areas by far. T-Mobile still leads in 47 of the metro areas, AT&T wins the benchmark in only 31 MSAs, though being on the same Network Top Speed level as T-Mobile. Sprint wins in only one metro area at a Network Top Speed level of about 38 Mbit/s lagging behind the other carriers.
While Verizon leads in metro areas all over the country, T-Mobile leads in its headquarters’ neighborhood in Bellevue, WA and is especially strong in Florida with remarkably high Network Top Speeds, outperforming the competition by far.
However, the diversity of Network Top Speeds amongst the different metro areas is smallest for Verizon which means that Verizon shows the most consistent picture across all MSAs. AT&T shows a similarly small diversity across the metro areas while the top speeds observed for T-Mobile and Sprint vary much more from one MSA to another.

Who is the leading carrier with respect to downlink Network Top Speed, i.e. the Network Top Speed that the fastest users were able to reach or exceed in the best 10% locations in every metropolitan statistical areas (MSA)? Colored areas indicate which carrier leads the benchmark in each MSA. Grey indicates MSAs where at least two networks are on par providing about the same results for downlink speed (within a relative margin of 1%).

How fast are the networks? The numbers show the downlink Network Top Speed that on average is exceeded in the best 10% of each Metropolitan Statistical Area. 

 

NETWORK TOP SPEED

From the countless millions of downlink speed samples observed while consumers use their smartphone in everyday life, the fastest samples indicate what the speed networks can deliver regardless of any limitations, e.g. by tariff or smartphone capabilities. Of course, depending on network properties like coverage or available spectrum, the achievable speed varies amongst different locations in a market. We take that into consideration by segmenting each MSA into a regular grid and identify the fastest speed sample observed in each grid zone of about 1.5×1.5 miles. The fastest 10% of all grid zones in each MSA determine the Network Top Speed that we use for comparing the different networks in the metro areas.

“VERIZON CLEARLY LEADS THE NETWORK TOP SPEED BENCHMARK”

“T-MOBILE STANDS OUT WITH HIGH SPEEDS IN FLORIDA”

USER SPEED EXPERIENCE

The user’s perspective on speed can be different from the network’s perspective. Though the Network Top Speeds and the User Speed Experience are related, they are still two different sides of the same coin. In real life, users face quite a few limitations that typically make their achieved speed by far lower than the top throughput the network can pro­vide. Sharing the network capacity with other users, traffic shaping by the carrier, bad local coverage conditions, tariff limitations and not least the type of application used – all these factors may determine which speed consumers really face when using their smartphones.
So, the speed achieved from a user’s perspective typically amount about one tenth of the Network Top Speed. Again, Verizon leads the benchmark with an average user speed of 5.3 Mbit/s. Sprint shows only slightly lower user speeds with an average of 5.2 Mbit/s. This is remarkable since Sprint’s Network Top Speed was only a little more than half of what the Verizon network showed. Obviously, consumers on Sprint face less limitations in their real life smartphone usage than users in the other networks. The average user speed with T-Mobile is 4.6 Mbit/s, while AT&T is slowest with still competitive 4.3 Mbit/s. In addition to benchmarking the networks with respect to the average of the experienced speed, it is also worth looking at the diversity of the speed, i.e. at how consistently the throughput experience is achieved.

Speed observed from a consumer’s perspective while using a smartphone. The graph shows the user experienced speeds averaged over all users and Metropolitan Statistical Areas (top) and the speed of the best 10% of the experienced speeds.

 

A good indica­tion for the variation is the relation between the average and the fastest 10% of the observed speeds. Sprint and T-Mobile show little higher variation than the competition and achieve a “fastest-10%” level of 13.7 Mbit/s and 12.2 Mbit/s, respectively. With both T-Mobile and AT&T showing distinctly lower values than the other networks, the User Speed Experience benchmark remains between Verizon and Sprint. However, even though the user speed values show Verizon and Sprint head-to-head, Verizon users still have a more consistent speed experience, both regarding peak-to-average and regarding the different Metropolitan Statistical Areas.
Finally, without understating Sprint’s pursuit, it is worth mentioning that the benchmark shown here is based on the common footprint of all four networks, i.e. on the area within the MSAs where consumers from all four carriers  have transferred data with their smartphone. Potential differences in network area coverage are deliberately ignored to show a like-for-like comparison focusing on speed only. For a detailed analysis about network coverage – see P3 Connectivity on Interstate Report (www.p3-group.com/en/p3-interstate-comparison-US-2018) and P3 State Connectivity Report (www.p3-group.com/en/US-State-Connectivity).

USER SPEED EXPERIENCE

When comparing the networks from the user’s perspective, we take into consideration that the speed a user achieves while using the smartphone depends on the consumer’s usage profile, i.e. the apps used, the locations where the phone is used and, to some extent, also on the tariff. Therefore, each consumer has an own speed experience depending on the usage profile. For comparing the networks, we analyze the User Speed Experience of each of the 2.3 million users in our crowd panel and then look at the average and top speed throughout of these users.
In the hundreds of millions of downlink speed samples, we first identify the smartphone data traffic that creates a distinguishable speed experience. This step is important as most app generated data traffic, e.g. a WhatsApp chat, is not representing the user experience of network speed simply because the bandwidth demand of a chat session is far from what modern networks can deliver even under bad conditions.
For the calculation of the User Speed Experience we also segment each MSA into a regular grid and identify the speed achieved by each user in each of the grid zones visited. This way, we take the location-dependent nature of the speed into account. For each user, we consider the different locations as equally important for the experienced speed and therefore do the network benchmark based on all these speed samples from all users in the respective Metropolitan Statistical Area. We look at the common footprint of the four networks, i.e. the area within the MSAs where consumers of all four carriers have used their smartphone. Here, we look at the average of all speed samples and the 10% fastest samples representing the user experienced top speeds.

“VERIZON PROVIDES THE MOST CONSISTENT NETWORK TOP SPEEDS ACROSS THE COUNTRY”

“OBVIOUSLY, CONSUMERS ON SPRINT FACE LESS LIMITATIONS IN THEIR REAL LIFE SMARTPHONE USAGE THAN USERS IN THE OTHER NETWORKS”

“VERIZON SHOWS HIGHER TOP SPEEDS THAN THE COMPETITION IN MORE THAN 75% OF THE METRO AREAS”