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Real talk: Deciphering the wireless marketing hype

US wireless operators are revving their marketing machines to persuade customers to switch carriers. How do you separate the hype from the reality? CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers some advice.

The wireless marketing wars are in full force. If your head is spinning from trying to understand what all the various claims mean, you're not alone.

Who should you really believe has the fastest 4G LTE network, most reliable service or the "strongest signal"? And do these metrics really matter all that much to your overall wireless experience?

These are the questions I answer for you in this edition of Ask Maggie.

Dear Maggie,

I'm a Verizon customer, but am considering switching to another carrier. I'm happy with Verizon's service, but I'm tempted to find something less expensive. I think I can get a better deal from AT&T, T-Mobile or Sprint. And it looks like from all the advertising that AT&T and T-Mobile, especially, have really improved their networks, so maybe I wouldn't have to sacrifice the quality of the service if I switch? My question to you is should I believe all the hype around these other networks' claims or should I stay with tried-and-true Verizon?

Thanks,

Don't Want to be a Sucker for Madison Ave.

Dear Don't Want to be a Sucker for Madison Ave.,

The wireless market has gotten very competitive, especially as T-Mobile has ramped up its Uncarrier campaign of novel incentives to win over customers. The result has been a reduction in pricing and more flexibility in service plans, and more people considering a change.

Josh Miller/CNET

The major operators have also amped up their marketing, making bold claims that they hope will either convince customers to stick with their service or leave a competitor to sign up for their offers. If you watched any of the NCAA basketball's March Madness last month, you know exactly what I am talking about.

AT&T launched its campaign to promote its claim that it has the "strongest 4G LTE signal." T-Mobile has continued to push its claims that it has the "fastest" 4G LTE network. Sprint says it has the "newest" network and offers the best value. And Verizon continues to push its "most reliable 4G network" tagline, while trying to convince customers that it offers the best of everything, including network speeds, reliability, and network coverage.

What do all these claims really mean?

First, the most important thing you should consider in choosing a wireless carrier is network coverage. If the network isn't available where you are, it doesn't matter what an operator promises. Without network coverage, your smartphone quickly turns into a frustratingly, useless paperweight.

The best way to know if a network has coverage where you need it is to ask friends and family about their experiences. And if you can, test out the network yourself. Carriers also offer coverage maps, but they aren't always accurate. You may also want to check out testing data and reports from third parties that look at coverage and network performance.

RootMetrics is a network testing firm that has been acknowledged by several carriers to be a credible barometer of coverage and network quality. It usually publishes reports twice a year -- its latest report was released in February. And it offers consumers a good sense of how the four largest wireless networks are performing on both a national and local level.

The company has reporting tools that provide a nationwide perspective of coverage and performance as well as a tool that allows users to drill down to the state level and even look at specific neighborhoods.

As a general rule of thumb, AT&T and Verizon tend to have the best coverage nationwide. There may be some pockets in certain corners of the US where one offers better coverage than the other. But in my experience, their coverage is nearly identical in most of the US, including suburban and more rural regions.

On the other hand, Sprint and T-Mobile offer much more limited footprints. These networks are mostly restricted to urban areas. In some cases, coverage is nonexistent in suburban and rural regions. This is something to consider if you work in a city, but live in the suburbs or if you spend a lot of time at a vacation home in a rural area.

Keep in mind this is just a generalization. Before you pull the trigger, you should do your homework to determine if the service you are interested in works where you need it most.

Let's assume that basic network coverage is not a limiting factor. How should you decide which network is best? Should you pick the network that claims to have the strongest signal, fastest 4G LTE network, newest network or the most reliable network?

Let's take a look at each of these claims.

AT&T: Strongest signal

What does the company claim?

AT&T claims that "strongest signal" equates to better service, according to AT&T's chief marketing officer of its mobility business David Christopher. In an interview last month, he said a "strong signal" might mean that consumers experience fewer service interruptions.

Shaquille O'Neal has fun with AT&T's latest ad campaign. Screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

For instance, a video won't pause or buffer and a song won't stutter or skip when you're accessing that data over AT&T's cellular network. Christopher added that his company's claim is backed by third-party data, but AT&T hasn't disclosed which firm conducted the research.

What's it really mean?

Truth be told, signal strength doesn't necessarily result in improved end user performance, according to Bill Moore, CEO of RootMetrics. Moore said that signal strength may mean a better experience for consumers or it may not.

Think of it this way: just because someone is shouting in your ear doesn't mean that you will understand him any better than if he spoke at a normal volume. In fact, sometimes the shouting is so loud, you can't really discern what is being said. The same concept is true for signal strength.

"A good quality signal is important," Moore said. "But sometimes a stronger signal can cause noise and other problems. So it may or may not result in better performance for customers."

T-Mobile: Fastest 4G LTE network

What does the company claim?

Since 2014, T-Mobile has asserted its 4G LTE network is the fastest in the country. It bases these claims on data collected by consumers using Ookla's Speedtest app, which is downloaded by wireless subscribers to tests their mobile upload and download speeds. Based on data collected from this app, T-Mobile concludes it is the "clear winner" in terms of 4G LTE speeds nationwide. More recently, the company has pointed to results from OpenSignal, which also offers an app that collects usage data from consumers, that indicate T-Mobile has the fastest network in the US.

T-Mobile's network expert and CTO Neville Ray talks about T-Mobile data speeds, pointing out other carrier's slower speeds. According to T-Mobile, its LTE network's average download speed in December 2013 was 17.8 Mbps, versus 14.7 Mbps from AT&T. James Martin/CNET

What's it really mean?

It's important to keep in mind that the tests that T-Mobile references in its claim to be the fastest are not scientific. They are based on data that was generated from crowd-sourced applications. T-Mobile claims this data is relevant because it shows how "real customers" are using the network, and argues the comparisons are fair because the test is similar for all of the carriers.

While such tools can be useful in showing where high-speed coverage is available, it doesn't provide a statistically relevant result that can be used to compare different networks. Why? For one, the data is crowdsourced using a mobile app, which means participants in the survey are self-selecting. In statistics, a self-selecting sample introduces bias, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions from the data. In order to get a scientific and statistically relevant result, the sample needs to be random.

It's like conducting a survey of Fox News viewers to predict the next US presidential election. There is inherent bias in the sample selected since the only subjects surveyed are all Fox News viewers, who are more likely to have a particular political viewpoint.

Moore added such self-selecting samples lack the scientific rigor to draw conclusions. And he said there can never be enough data from the crowd to ever overcome this bias.

"On the surface it sounds great," he said. "They have data from real people, therefore the results must be real. But that's not quite how it works. The results could be accurate, but you'll never be able to prove it with a self-selecting sample."

There are other problems with crowdsourced data collection, as well. For example, in the case of T-Mobile, the samples are likely drawn from areas where T-Mobile has strong coverage, while at the same time data is largely missing from regions where T-Mobile lacks 4G coverage. This distorts the picture for customers looking for true nationwide coverage and performance.

T-Mobile, which has highlighted RootMetrics data in its marketing in the past, has not called into question the firm's testing methodology. But T-Mobile CEO John Legere has said that the RootMetrics testing simply can't keep up with how quickly T-Mobile has been rolling out and improving its network. He claims the Speedtest app offers more relevant data, because it reflects the dynamic nature of T-Mobile's network.

Sprint: Newest network

What does the company claim?

Sprint is engaged in a multi-year project to upgrade its entire network, ripping and replacing equipment throughout. The end result for customers, the company claims, will be "significantly better call quality and faster data speeds in more places than before."

screen-shot-2015-04-10-at-6-10-05-pm.png
Screenshot: Marguerite Reardon/CNET

What's it really mean?

It's true that Sprint's network may be "newer," and eventually it could be better. But as the company has rolled out service, the upgrades have resulted in a degradation of service for some customers as it gets the "new" network up to speed. The company also still lacks the breadth of coverage for its 4G LTE network that its competitors AT&T and Verizon enjoy.

That said, Sprint is improving. According to RootMetrics' report published in February, in the second half of 2014 Sprint trailed the other major carriers into terms of upload and download speeds. But its network performance improved "at a rapid pace." In fact, it overtook T-Mobile on a nationwide basis due to an improvement in call quality and text messages.

Verizon: Most reliable and best all-around network

What does the company claim?

For years, Verizon's claim to fame has been its "most reliable network" assertion. Remember the "Can you hear me now?" commercials? This was used to illustrate the fact that Verizon's customers enjoyed fewer dropped calls and better call connection quality than its competitors. The company has continued to hammer home reliability as a key differentiator when it comes to its 4G LTE data network.

screen-shot-2015-04-10-at-6-15-13-pm.png
Screenshot: Marguerite Reardon/CNET

But now the company claims it has the best of everything compared to its competitors. This means that not only is it the most reliable network, it also has the fastest network with the best coverage. And it's this total package that results in consumers having the best wireless experience, said Jay Jaffin, vice president of marketing communications at Verizon.

"The point we're making is that it all matters," Jaffin said. "Speed, reliability, coverage. It's the summation of all the metrics that are important to a customer's experience of our network."

Verizon points to data from RootMetrics as proof that it is the leader in overall performance.

In its report published in February, RootMetrics noted that Verizon had for the third consecutive time "claimed bragging rights as winner of our Overall RootScore Award." It earned five out of six national RootScore awards topping its competitors in terms of overall network performance, reliability, network speed, data performance and call performance.

What's it really mean?

There's no question that RootMetrics found Verizon to be at the top of heap in terms of overall performance compared to the other three major wireless operators. But AT&T was a close second in almost every category. Sprint has also made significant improvements as it upgrades its network. And in urban areas where T-Mobile has concentrated its upgrades, its service is nearly on par with Verizon and others. What this means is that even though Verizon may score better on these tests, consumers could get a very similar experience from any of the other three wireless providers depending on where they use the service.

The bottom line:

First, all of these claims are first and foremost marketing-designed to make the company look good. So all claims should be taken with a grain of salt.

Second, as I stated above the most important metric when deciding which carrier to use is coverage. If the network doesn't even exist where you need it, it's irrelevant who offers the fastest downloads or who has the newest network equipment.

Third, when coverage is not a factor, which tends to be in most urban settings, the difference in performance among the four major operators is not huge. In other words, so long as the wireless operators meet a certain threshold of performance, consumers won't be able to see much difference in their experience.

"If all you're doing on your smartphone is emailing, surfing the Web and using some basic apps, you don't need much more than an average download speed of 10Mbps." Moore said. He added that in regions where all four major carriers offer 4G LTE, they deliver downloads well above this threshold.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are other factors that contribute to overall network performance, such as network capacity. When the network is fully loaded in the morning or right after work, downloads and other performance metrics may drop off. This means that as more customers are added to these networks, it's very likely that performance will tail off.

"It's an arms race among the carriers right now," Moore said. "And it's a dynamic market where things are constantly changing."

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.