So who has the superior wireless network, anyway?

Verizon Wireless and AT&T both claim victory after the release of a recent study. CNET breaks down who actually won. Or did they all?

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Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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The wireless wars are heating up, so it's no wonder the claims of network superiority are flying out fast and furiously.

The latest touch point comes from a study just released from wireless testing firm RootMetrics, which compiled its results after extensive testing in 125 markets during the second half of 2013.

Depending on whom you ask, AT&T and Verizon Wireless both had something to brag about. AT&T touted that its overall performance topped more markets than its rivals, while Verizon insists that the results show it is the most reliable network.

Such is the fierce war of words now fought between the carriers on the television and radio airwaves, billboards, and online. Whether its fastest, largest, or most reliable, one or more of the carriers have laid claim to it.

AT&T has traditionally claimed the speed crown, while Verizon has been the most reliable. But things are shifting as AT&T improves its reliability.

So who's right? Well, to an extent, all of them, according to RootMetrics CEO Bill Moore.

Out of the 125 markets, AT&T had the best combined performance, which includes speed and reliability and factors phone calls, data, and text messages, either tying or topping its competitors in 90 markets. Verizon Wireless only tied or topped 65 markets.

But over the last year, RootMetrics introduced a measure called the reliability index, in which Verizon won or tied in an overwhelming 102 markets, vs. 68 from AT&T. A Verizon representative noted that outside of the study, Verizon still has the most markets covered by LTE.

It also has a speed index, in which AT&T wins handily, winning or tying in 92 markets vs. 26 from Verizon.

Indeed, Moore said AT&T took the overall crown because the speed portion of the index was so much stronger than Verizon, while it had narrowed the gap on reliability with its rival.

Interestingly, T-Mobile, which has made a lot of noise about its new plans and the quick pace of its network upgrade, won 16 markets outright in the speed category, just one shy of Verizon.

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

T-Mobile now calls itself the nation's fastest network, basing its claim on download speeds based off stats from Speedtest.net.

"T-Mobile is starting to emerge on the speed front in a pretty reasonable way," Moore said. He noted, however, that the Speedtest.net results only test data speeds, as opposed to phone calls and text messages like RootMetrics.

Moore warned against looking at the data and applying the results on a national basis. He said he looked at it as 125 individual tests per market, and said RootMetrics was working on its first nationwide test, which would consider more areas and markets, as well as calculate population density and proportion. The results from the first nationwide test would come next month, he said.

This ad likely touched a nerve at Verizon. AT&T

Either way, 2014 should be an interesting time for the wireless networks. AT&T will look to keep its lead in overall performance.

Verizon, which admitted late last year that it was having problems with network capacity and speed, is deploying additional spectrum to ease the congestion. But only one out of every five smartphone is compatible with that new spectrum, so the immediate benefits are muted.

At the same time, T-Mobile is looking to add additional capacity of its own, and touts a faster form of LTE it calls Wideband LTE.

Sprint, which was barely a blip in terms of markets won in the RootMetrics study, could also see dramatic improvement this year with the further roll out of Sprint Spark, its plan to use three bands of spectrum to create a much larger wireless highway for bandwidth-hogging smartphones and tablets. In the meantime, it has suffered through a slow upgrade process.

Hopefully, that means fewer dropped calls and dead spots for everyone.