Which wireless carrier is king? One testing firm weighs in

The latest test by RootMetrics shows how the big are getting better. But small carriers Sprint and T-Mobile are making solid progress.

Verizon Wireless topped all rivals in the latest RootMetrics test. Roger Cheng/CNET

The flood of different TV commercials touting the fastest, most reliable and newest wireless network may have your head spinning about which carrier actually offers the best service. It turns out Verizon Wireless is top dog for the third time in a row.

That's according to network-testing firm RootMetrics, which sent a small army of testers, who covered nearly 300,000 miles across the country, to compile data for its US mobile network performance review, which sums up US carrier performance in the second half of 2014.

Verizon, the nation's largest wireless carrier, again edged out AT&T on overall performance, winning out on reliability, speed, data, call quality and text messages. Sprint, meanwhile, improved its call quality and text messages, while T-Mobile saw its data and speed scores jump.

With wireless competition heating up, it's never been more important to maintain an aura of network superiority. That's why tests like RootMetrics' performance results are critical for carrier bragging rights. While the companies have been aggressively dropping prices and offering more lucrative data packages, many consumers ultimately choose their carrier based on coverage quality. Verizon, for example, has been able to charge a premium because it boasts the industry's strongest network reputation, while Sprint has lost millions of customers because of its network problems.

The good news: Every carrier got better.


"What we're seeing right now, everybody sped up," RootMetrics CEO Bill Moore said in an interview. "It's no longer luxury to have fast and reliable mobile service, it's a requirement."

While prior RootMetrics tests had AT&T narrowing the gap with Verizon, the latest results showed Big Red dominating by taking nearly all of the categories. AT&T only won out on text message quality. But the margin of victory on each specific category was narrow, with AT&T running a close second, according to the report.

"It's always nice when our wireless network performance receives positive feedback from RootMetrics," an AT&T spokeswoman said. "But our job is never done."

On the state level, Verizon performed even better, widening its lead over AT&T, partly thanks to the deployment of additional spectrum to help with capacity and speed. AT&T lost out on several state awards due to a slip in reliability and call performance.

A Verizon spokesman declined to comment on the report ahead of its release.


T-Mobile, Sprint flip spots

Things get more interesting with Sprint, the third-largest carrier, and T-Mobile, the No. 4 player. Sprint overtook T-Mobile in overall performance across the nation, helped by a significant improvement in call quality and text message performance.

The results are what Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure alluded to when he said T-Mobile and CEO John Legere was in for a . Legere has been vocal about Sprint's network, often calling it "crap" or "half-assed," stepping up his rhetoric in recent months after Sprint began to more aggressively tout its own promotions.

Sprint Chief Technology Officer Stephen Bye. Sprint

The jump in Sprint's scores is due to its long-in-the-works Network Vision plan, a multi-year project to replace its older 3G network while laying the foundation for faster 4G LTE technology.

"It was an ambitious upgrade, but it's taken longer than expected," Sprint Chief Technology Officer Stephen Bye said in an interview. "We're in the final stages of it. But we're not settling on where we are."

Where Sprint still falls short is in data and speed, where it lags behind the competition.

On the flip side, T-Mobile fell behind on voice and text but is drawing closer when it comes to speed. The carrier prefers to use data from Speedtest.net, which tallies individual speed tests conducted by consumers, as evidence that it has the fastest network in the nation.

RootMetrics' results show T-Mobile still lagging behind Verizon and AT&T in overall speed, but T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said the data is misleading because it factors in rural areas and communities outside of the major metro areas, which is where T-Mobile has focused its investments. It also uses outdated information that doesn't reflect the work it has done in the last few months.

While RootMetrics conducted a test of 125 markets, T-Mobile prefers to take a narrower view. Ray said it performed better in the top 30 markets, either winning or tying for first in overall performance, data and speeds in key metro areas such as New York, Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas. T-Mobile argues that those metro areas are a more accurate indicator of network performance, since a majority of mobile traffic originates from those markets.

"Our strength right now is in metro and suburban areas," Ray said in an interview.

While Verizon and AT&T offered more markets with consistently higher average speeds at 10 to 20 megabits per second, T-Mobile offers the most markets with speeds higher than 20 megabits per second at 41, one above Verizon and 27 more than AT&T. Sprint didn't have any markets that hit that speed.

T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray at the company's CES 2014 press conference talking about his speedier network. CNET/James Martin

While Sprint has surpassed T-Mobile on a national level, Ray said that the improvements are in lower populated areas.

"That's where Sprint is winning -- where they have no customers," he said, knocking his competitor for its lower data scores. "The Sprint guys have completed their [3G] CDMA work. But it's old news."

Sprint, for its part, is working on building out its network to take advantage of three different bands of spectrum, which it argues will allow for a faster and wider lane for wireless traffic. The company is also working to get more customers to upgrade their smartphones to take advantage of the 4G LTE network, dubbed "Spark."

"As you would expect, customers with those kinds of devices will see a better experience," Bye said.

Regardless of how the wireless battles go, it's clear the four carriers all share one goal: Upping the ante in terms of network quality.

"The first half of 2015 has a lot of opportunities for everybody to make some moves," Moore said.

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