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Sorry, AT&T: T-Mobile says it has fastest wireless network in US

CEO John Legere takes another jab at AT&T by touting data from Speedtest.net that he claims proves T-Mobile has a faster 4G LTE network than any other wireless carrier in the US.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere at the company's press conference at CES 2014. CNET/James Martin

T-Mobile claims it now has the fastest wireless network in the United States.

At a press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Wednesday, the wireless operator said that its newly deployed 4G LTE network, which now covers 209 million people in the US in 273 metro areas, is the fastest wireless network in the United States. The company's CEO, John Legere, known for his pokes at competitor AT&T, giddily pointed out that this means it has unseated AT&T as the supposed fastest carrier in the US.

"If you look at that data, we win by a mile," he said.

Legere said he plans sending a cease-and-desist letter to AT&T to have the company change its marketing. Legere even joked he'd take a camera crew with him as he personally delivered the letter to AT&T execs.

AT&T has been advertising it has the fastest wireless network for almost a year, and T-Mobile's Legere and CTO Neville Ray argued that AT&T's claims are based on old data. T-Mobile, which just deployed its 4G LTE network en masse this past year, says it has more up-to-date speed test data that proves it holds the crown as the fastest network.

Ray explained that using data collected from Ookla's Speedtest.net, T-Mobile has consistently outpaced all its competitors when it comes to speed using the speedtest.net Web site.

The data was collected from T-Mobile and other wireless customers testing their service using the Speedtest.net site as well as paid consultants that T-Mobile sent out to test the networks.

After compiling and analyzing months' worth of data, Ray said that T-Mobile consistently performed better than its competitors' 4G LTE networks. For example, in December, T-Mobile had an average download speed of 17.8Mbps compared with 14.7Mbps from AT&T and 14.3Mbps from Verizon Wireless. Sprint came in with speeds of 7.9Mbps.

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

To show how this data can be collected and analyzed daily, he also showed averages for a single day, January 7, 2013. On that day, T-Mobile offered average download speeds of 16.8Mbps. Verizon had average downloads of 15.1Mpbs. AT&T topped out at 13.7Mbps, and Sprint had an average speed of 7.6Mbps.

Ray explained that T-Mobile's performance will only increase as the company rolls out its so-called Wideband LTE. This Wideband LTE service is not a new technology or variation of LTE, rather it's simply a marketing term used by T-Mobile to highlight pockets of the company's network where it has more spectrum allocated for LTE use.

Wideband LTE and low-frequency spectrum
Most LTE Networks today, such as Verizon's network, have been built using a minimum of a 10MHz sliver of spectrum for upstream traffic and a 10MHz sliver of spectrum for downstream. T-Mobile has been adding spectrum to its footprint, and in some markets, such as Dallas, it has deployed twice as much spectrum for LTE, offering a 20MHz sliver for upstream and a 20MHz sliver for downstream data transmissions.

Because Wideband LTE is nothing more than an LTE service with more wireless spectrum allocated in specific locations, existing LTE devices work just as they do on parts of the network with less spectrum allocated.

Even though T-Mobile may now try to claim to be the fastest wireless network in the nation, it certainly isn't the most extensive. T-Mobile is still very much constrained to a relatively small footprint that centers around densely populated areas like cities. This has been a major handicap over the years as the company tries to compete with AT&T and Verizon.

But Ray assured the audience at the press conference that the carrier is working on improving this aspect of the carrier's network, too. The main problem is that T-Mobile lacks low-frequency spectrum, which travels long distances and penetrates obstacles like walls more easily. This type of spectrum is ideal for covering rural and suburban areas.

Instead, the company has built its network using higher-frequency spectrum that transmits signals over shorter distances, has more difficulty penetrating walls and other obstacles, but offers a lot of capacity.

In an effort to expand its network to more places and improve in-building coverage, T-Mobile has been pursuing opportunities to buy low-frequency spectrum. Earlier this week, it announced a deal with Verizon in which it will swap some of its higher-band spectrum for lower-frequency spectrum in the 700MHz A block. This will finally give T-Mobile some low-frequency spectrum to at least begin building its network beyond cities.

"We're going to take that network with low-band spectrum, and expand into homes, vacation destinations, other places," Ray said.

The new 700MHz A block spectrum from Verizon offers T-Mobile low-frequency spectrum in 9 out of the top 10 urban markets and 21 of the top 30 markets, the company said when the deal was announced. But the larger 4G LTE footprint won't be built overnight. The deal with Verizon still needs approval from regulators. And after that, T-Mobile will need to address some interference issues.

The block of spectrum that T-Mobile bought is right next to the broadcast TV channel 51. In some markets where broadcasters are using channel 51 there are potential interference issues. But on a call with investors on Monday, Ray explained that these issues are minor -- and that 50 percent of the new spectrum holdings have no interference issues because there is no channel 51 broadcaster transmitting a signal. So in cities such as Dallas, Washington, Miami, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis, T-Mobile will be able to add the new spectrum immediately after the deal is closed.

Then the only thing that will hold back T-Mobile customers from benefiting from the new spectrum are the handsets. T-Mobile will need to add additional radio support to handsets to take advantage of the 700MHz frequency.

With low-band spectrum, Ray said, T-Mobile will be able to level the playing field.

"We have the weapons to do that now," he said.