Verizon touts nationwide wireless test to claim it's still no. 1

Verizon Wireless is using results from a RootMetrics test to claim it's the fastest and most reliable wireless carrier in the US.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

Verizon Wireless is trying to quell its competitors' claims that they offer better performing wireless networks than it does with results of a new study published by RootMetrics.

On Wednesday, Big Red highlighted findings from a recent RootMetrics nationwide wireless test, which shows that Verizon dominated in five out of six categories that were tested by the wireless analytics company during the last half of 2013.

Specifically the test looked at network reliability, call completion and quality, text message service, and data speeds. Overall Verizon ranked No. 1 nationally with AT&T following as a close second. Sprint and T-Mobile came in third and fourth, respectively.

The results of the test offer some solace to Verizon Wireless customers, who over the past year have experienced some congestion issues in big cities such as New York. The results also help deflect some of the attention from other wireless operators, such as AT&T which has been claiming it now has the most reliable wireless network. And earlier this year, T-Mobile started touting itself as having the fastest 4G LTE service.

Verizon Wireless CTO Nicola Palmer said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday that the results confirm what Verizon's customers already know.

"We are meeting and exceeding our brand promise," she said. "We are delivering consistent reliable, fast service when and where our customers need it."

The reality is that whether Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile are touting test results, it's difficult to compare because the actual tests used to boast about these claims aren't measuring the exact same things.

For example, the most recent RootMetrics test measured performance across the entire country. And it included data from both 4G LTE and 3G networks. This mode of testing favors Verizon for the mere fact that Verizon still has the most extensive 4G LTE deployment and the largest footprint, period. Verizon was the first major carrier to deploy LTE. And the company has used its head start to its advantage in terms of building out its network. As a result, competitors were hurt by comparison because where LTE is unavailable, customers are falling back onto 3G networks, which offer much slower throughput. RootMetrics data suggests that Verizon had the best, or tied for the best, service in 45 states. AT&T was best or tied for first in 16 states.

But at the city level, AT&T performed much better. According to RootMetrics, AT&T won or tied for first in 92 of 125 cities tested by RootMetrics. Verizon still dominated in terms of call, data, and text messaging reliability.

T-Mobile also performed well within cities when it came to the speed of its network. But the carrier's overall score was hurt by the fact that its network is essentially nonexistent in many parts of the country.

In short, the study reveals little new information in terms of how the carriers stack up against one another. Verizon is still considered the most reliable network with a strong LTE network that offers service in more places than anyone else. AT&T is a close second. And Sprint and T-Mobile need better coverage to truly compete against Verizon or AT&T.

Network upgrade update
In addition to the news of the test results, Palmer provided an update on the company's network upgrade. Verizon completed its initial build-out of its 4G LTE network using 700MHz spectrum last year. And since then, the company has been augmenting that network with higher frequency, higher capacity spectrum called AWS to add more capacity to the network.

Nicola Palmer, Verizon Wireless CTO, speaks at CTIA's MobileCon show in San Diego. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Palmer said the AWS spectrum deployment is ahead of schedule and is putting in place capacity that will be needed in key markets in the future. She said that Verizon has 20MHz x 20MHz blocks of AWS spectrum in many key markets. This sliver of spectrum is twice the size of the spectrum swath used in the 700MHz deployment, which used 10MHz x 10MHz channels. As a result, Palmer said that Verizon will able to triple the available capacity with the AWS spectrum in these markets.

Verizon is also well on its way of seeding the market with devices that will be able to use the AWS spectrum. She said that 25 percent of the LTE devices in use today are AWS capable, and all new smartphones sold by Verizon are AWS capable, ensuring that the functionality will be in consumers' devices when they need the service.

Palmer also noted that more than 70 percent of all wireless traffic is traveling over the company's 4G LTE network. But she acknowledged that the slower 3G network will continue to be used until at least 2020.

Still, as the company moves customers off the 3G spectrum, it will begin to reuse that spectrum for its 4G LTE service. Currently, Verizon is using the 3G network to serve its prepaid and wholesale network customers. In fact, customers signing up for the newly announced AllSet prepaid plans from Verizon will be using the 3G network instead of Verizon's faster 4G LTE network.

"As we move customers from 3G to 4G, the amount of capacity that is freed up is sufficient to handle the prepaid customers. We'll be watching this and see how it goes. But it's a good opportunity for prepaid customers," Palmer said.

Indeed, Verizon Wireless customers on these new prepaid plans are allowed to carry over excess data from one month to the next. And the cost of the plan is less expensive than what a similar plan costs through Verizon's contract service.

Palmer also reiterated the company's plans to roll out its voice over LTE service later this year. And it has successfully tested a multicast video service that it may use along with its Fios TV service to deliver a streaming TV service to consumers.