Which wireless network is the best in the US? Well, that depends on which report you believe.
RootMetrics, which released its latest rankings Thursday, has once again crowned Verizon the overall winner. But last week, Ookla, which offers a speed test app people can use to test network speeds, said T-Mobile had the fastest network. JD Power also came out with its own rankings last week, putting Verizon at the top of the heap.
These reports come at a time of intense competition in the wireless industry. Over the past couple of years, the four major wireless carriers have fallen over each other to offer promotions and steal one another's customers. But price is only one factor in winning over consumers. Customers also care about speed, reliability and overall user experience. And the marketing departments at these carriers are eager to use results from independent firms' reports to make their case.
So which carrier is really tops? To understand what the results mean, you first have to understand what the tests are measuring.
For the 10th time in a row, Verizon has topped RootMetrics rankings overall, which includes speed testing and reliability. AT&T came in second overall for performance. But the report notes that all four carriers showed significant improvements across the board during the first half of 2018.
RootMetrics' testing method relies on what's called "drive testing." The firm sends testers all over the country to scientifically sample download speeds, coverage, reliability and network quality. This means running tests in the same location, using the same phones, and during the same time of day across all four major carriers. This method is meant to ensure data is consistent and comparable across the carriers.
According to the report, which looked at results from the first half of 2018, RootMetrics testers drove nearly 228,000 miles and conducted 4 million tests. In addition to nationwide results, you can also drill down for state level and metro-level results.
Looking at local results is important, since there is some variability among carriers. For example, T-Mobile still performs very well in metro markets and offers some of the fastest download speeds in several cities.
Last week, Ookla released a report for the first half of 2018 declaring T-Mobile the speediest mobile network in the US. On average, T-Mobile's downloads clocked in at 27.9 megabits per second. Verizon took second place with average download speeds of 26 Mbps; AT&T was third at 22.2 Mbps; and Sprint was fourth at 20.4 Mbps. Interestingly, despite defeating Verizon in overall speeds nationally, T-Mobile was fastest in only 33 cities. Meanwhile, Verizon took that prize in 45 markets. AT&T was fastest in 12 cities, while Sprint won in five locations.
One thing to keep in mind about Ookla's testing is that it's totally different from RootMetrics'. Instead of sending out its own testers, Ookla crowdsources its test. The company offers an app, which users download and use to test their own speeds. While Ookla is able to gather many more data points than RootMetrics, its testing isn't as scientific in that the results don't take into account the devices used to test the speeds. What's more, the results may be skewed because data is collected where users are clustered together.
Still, companies like T-Mobile claim Ookla's testing offers a snapshot of real world performance that customers are experiencing.
Market research firm JD Power also came out with a report last week, with its own perspective on which carrier is the best in the US. This report declared Verizon the nationwide winner. Unlike RootMetrics and Ookla, JD Power doesn't measure network performance, but rather consumers' perception of the service. The company polls consumers to ask them their subjective opinions on things like call quality, customer service and overall satisfaction.
Verizon walked away with the win, ranking the highest in five out of six regions of the country.
The bottom line
However you slice it, Verizon performed well in all three reports, making it a pretty good bet when it comes to speed and reliability. These results should come as little surprise, given the company's long-standing focus on maintaining network quality.
"We don't play to play. We play to win," CEO Lowell McAdam, while discussing Verizon's rollout of 5G. "Network leadership is at the core."
Next generation 5G networks should bring faster speeds, superior responsiveness and better coverage. 5G is seen as the foundational technology for areas like self-driving cars and streaming virtual reality, and it starts with these early deployments.
The good news for consumers is that in each of these reports, all four national carriers have been improving. Still, national rankings may make for great marketing fodder, but what really matters is how carriers perform in your own local area. So when considering any of these reports, it's always a good idea to check the local rankings and to talk to other users in your area about their own experiences.
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