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Will AT&T's LTE network be more reliable than 3G for the iPhone?

In this Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon helps a reader decide whether he should ditch AT&T for Verizon's LTE network when the new iPhone comes out.

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
8 min read

The new iPhone launch is just around the corner. And eager fans are starting to consider which carrier might offer the best service.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I help a reader, who has had poor experiences with his iPhone 3GS on AT&T, evaluate whether he should switch to Verizon Wireless for the new iPhone since it's likely to support 4G LTE. I also offer some advice about whether to buy the older Samsung Galaxy SII or the newer Galaxy SIII. And I explain why the recent court ruling in the Apple vs. Samsung patent case shouldn't factor much into that decision.

Also I want to let my loyal Ask Maggie readers know that my column will be on hiatus for the next three weeks. I'm getting married next Saturday and will be on vacation preparing for the wedding and enjoying my honeymoon for two weeks afterward.

I will return to CNET on September 24 and hope you all will check back with me for more Ask Maggie's. There should be plenty of great questions to discuss as we're expecting a flurry of product announcements over the next two weeks, including a Nokia Windows 8 Phone, a new Amazon Kindle Fire tablet, and of course Apple's big iPhone announcement (and fingers crossed, possibly a mini-iPad announcement.)

Will 4G LTE solve AT&T's reliability issues for the iPhone?

Dear Maggie,
I am planning on buying the new iPhone when it comes out next month. I've heard it will have 4G LTE, just like the Apple iPad. With Verizon's 4G LTE on my iPad I get service everywhere. Its great! I currently have an iPhone 4S on AT&T. But in my high school where I go to school, AT&T doesn't have great reception. But my friends with Verizon, on the other hand, get service everywhere. (Just thought I'd put it out there, I'm not one of those students that use a phone all day, but when teachers allow us to, I like to. And I would like to get service when I am allowed to.)

I have basically hated AT&T since day one when I got an iPhone 3G. I really want to switch to Verizon with the "New iPhone," but I don't want to be paying $100 a month. With the 'New iPhone' supporting 4G LTE on AT&T and Verizon, will Verizon's 4G LTE be more reliable than AT&T's 4G LTE just like the current CDMA service is more reliable than AT&T's GSM network? Or are they both evenly reliable considering they are both LTE? On my iPad I get 4G LTE everywhere in my school, will I be getting 4G LTE on my iPhone with AT&T in the same places my iPad gets it? Thank you for your time, I really look forward to hearing from you about this topic. And I hope you keep up giving the great advice and answers!


Dear Alec,
As you know the new iPhone hasn't yet been announced, so we don't know for certain that it will support 4G LTE. But there's a very good chance that it will. While a recent survey of consumers indicates that nearly half of smartphone users don't get care if they get LTE, I think once they get a taste for the speed, they will find it hard to live without.

In general, Verizon Wireless has a superior 4G network compared with any other wireless operator around. Not necessarily because it performs better than AT&T, but because the coverage is far more extensive than anyone else out there building a 4G LTE network.

At the end of of the second quarter of 2012, Verizon covered 230 million potential customers in 337 markets with its LTE network. This is more than all the other carriers building LTE combined. By the end of the year, Verizon expects to cover about 260 million people in more than 400 markets.

By contrast, AT&T's LTE network covers only about 80 million people in the U.S. today, and it will only add another 70 million by the end of the year.

So what this means for many iPhone users is that Verizon will have LTE in a lot more places than AT&T will offer it. In your case, it's difficult to say whether AT&T will offer 4G LTE where you need it. You might want to check that out first.

If AT&T's 4G LTE network is where you live and go to school, then I think the networks will likely deliver very similar performance. In fact, in a recent JD Power customer survey, wireless subscribers noted that devices on LTE networks, regardless of carrier, experienced fewer data-related problems than subscribers using 3G devices. Customers on LTE networks had a better experience than with other 4G devices, such as those that use WiMax, which is the technology Sprint and Clearwire have deployed, or HSPA+, the current 4G wireless flavor touted by T-Mobile USA.

"It's very interesting to see the stark performance differences between the newest generation of network technology, 4G LTE and other network services that were the first offerings of 4G-marketed devices in early 2011," Kirk Parsons, senior director of wireless services at J.D. Power, said in a statement regarding the report.

The report points out that the improvement in performance on a 4G LTE network was regardless of carrier. In other words, AT&T's LTE network, where it's available, seems to perform better than its 3G and HSPA+ networks.

From my own personal experience using the Galaxy SIII on AT&T this summer, I can tell you that I thought AT&T's LTE network was amazingly fast. It nearly killed me when my device testing time ended, and I had to go back to my slow Galaxy SII on AT&T's HSPA+ network. The Galaxy SIII on the LTE network was so fast. It was truly like going from dial-up Internet service to broadband on my mobile device.

The bottom line here is that so far AT&T's LTE network seems pretty solid. Of course, you should also remember that the LTE network is not fully deployed and it's underutilized. Network usage is likely to go up sharply once the new iPhone is introduced with LTE. And once many of the LTE naysayers discover that they can't live without the faster speeds, there's likely to be even more subscribers on the network. And there's a chance that the heavier load on the network may affect performance in the future.

So what should you do? I will tell you what I tell everyone deciding which service provider to choose: You first have to make sure the service you want is adequate where you plan to use your phone. If AT&T's LTE network is available to you, I can almost guarantee you that it will be a better experience than what you had with the company's 3G network. There is a chance that AT&T's 4G LTE network will get better reception because of the frequency of spectrum it's using. Like Verizon, AT&T is using the old 700 MHz analog TV broadcast spectrum to build its LTE network. Signals using this frequency can travel over longer distances and penetrate through obstacles better than services using higher frequencies, which might result in better coverage and better indoor reception.

But if find that AT&T's LTE is spotty or not available at all to you, then I'd say Verizon is the better choice for you, especially since you know it already works in your school.

I know you mentioned price as a factor, but AT&T's plans aren't that cheap either. Still, if you do have a good deal with AT&T then that is definitely something to consider, since I wouldn't expect good deals from Verizon any time soon.

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck.

How does Apple's patent victory over Samsung affect the Galaxy SII?

Dear Maggie,
My wife is up for a new phone, and I am thinking about getting her a Galaxy SII. Is that a bad idea with the recent court decision? What are the chances that that phone will be banned or have it's functionality reduced?

Thanks for your advice,

Dear Paul,
I do think it's a bad idea to get your wife a Galaxy SII. But I don't think it's a good idea, not because of the recent court decision. I think it's a bad idea because the Galaxy SII uses older technology and doesn't operate on the faster 4G LTE network of Verizon, AT&T or Sprint. I also think the enhancements to the software via Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and Samsung's TouchWiz are noticeable. And I just like the look and feel of the phone so much more than the Galaxy SII.

I am sure you are considering the Galaxy SII because you're getting it for a bargain. I've seen some carriers offering the Galaxy SII for $50 or less with a two year contract. Prices that low are tempting, especially when the Galaxy SIII is selling for $200 with a two-year contract.

But remember that your wife will have to use this phone for the next two years. And over that time, all the major carriers will have expanded their 4G LTE networks. And new features and functionalities will be added to even newer devices. Meanwhile, you're wife will be stuck with a phone that is using technology that was already a year old when she got her phone.

As for Apple's patent victory over Samsung, I don't think you should worry too much about it. The hearing that would ban any of the Samsung phones cited in the case will be held on December 6, 2012. So at the very least, you would have until December to purchase the Samsung Galaxy SII. As far as I understand it, the ban does not affect devices or customers who bought the device prior to the ban. It only prohibits the sale of new devices in the U.S.

What's more the ban does not mean that Samsung can't sell this phone overseas, so I don't think that the support for Galaxy SII phones will fall off dramatically since Samsung still has to support the product overseas. The other thing is that Samsung is likely to appeal the decision. So this legal fight probably isn't over yet.

Up close and personal with the Samsung Galaxy S3 (pictures)

See all photos

At any rate, as I said above, I wouldn't recommend the Galaxy SII now. Instead, you should show your wife some love and get her the more expensive Galaxy SIII. She will thank you for it!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET, offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.