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Nationwide 4G Showdown

Which network offers the fastest speeds in America? The results are in.


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You know AT&T has some catching up to do in the 4G race when its CEO admits that it will take two to three years for its service to be on a par with Verizon Wireless'. At least AT&T is stepping up its 4G deployments, announcing in May that it would begin rolling out LTE technology in five initial markets: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Ten more markets will follow by the end of the year, reaching a total of 70 million Americans, but even at that point, AT&T will be well behind Verizon's 147 markets. But is 2011 a bust for the carrier that's attempting to acquire T-Mobile?

The good news for AT&T subscribers is that the provider isn't just using LTE to deliver high-speed data. Just like T-Mobile, AT&T also operates an HSPA+ network. Unfortunately, the carrier hasn't offered true 4G speeds for the "4G" phones it sells. In fact, earlier this year many reported that the 3G AT&T iPhone 4 is faster (especially on the upload) than 4G devices such as the Atrix 4G and HTC Inspire 4G. As it turns out, AT&T didn't initially have the proper backhaul in place at its cell sites. Now 10 markets have this necessary infrastructure (including Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco), and the provider says nearly two thirds of its mobile broadband traffic will be on expanded backhaul by 2012.

4G Device Selection/ What We Tested

Of all the major carriers, AT&T has the skimpiest selection of 4G gear. As of press time, the provider sold just four 4G phones and one 4G USB modem for a total of five devices. No 4G tablets and no 4G hotspots were available. Things should improve by the end of the year, by which time AT&T plans to add 20 devices to its portfolio, some of which will be LTE-capable.

These are the 4G devices used for our testing:

HTC Inspire 4G: $99

AT&T USBConnectShockwave: Free

Performance

Overall, AT&T delivered the slowest speeds across the board, whether we were surfing websites or downloading and uploading large files.

Using Speedtest.net, AT&T's Inspire 4G and Shockwave USB modem combined to offer 2.2 Mbps downloads and 578 Kbps uploads. Those numbers are well behind Sprint (3.9 Mbps down/814 Kbps up) and T-Mobile (4.7 Mbps/1.4 Mbps), especially on uploads. Verizon's LTE network delivered download speeds that were 5.5 times faster, and eight times faster uploads. Site-load times were also slow, with AT&T averaging 16 seconds overall. That's more than 2 seconds slower than Sprint, 4 seconds behind T-Mobile, and more than 6 seconds behind Verizon's LTE network.

Thinking about downloading or uploading large files? AT&T's network just wasn't up to the challenge, delivering an average of just 1.7 Mbps on the downlink when pulling down a copy of OpenOffice from our FTP server and notching 513 Kbps when uploading a 6.7MB file to the same server. Both of these scores brought up the rear. The carrier also had the second-highest number of failed attempts (any upload or download taking more than 7 minutes): 32.

AT&T did perform pretty well in Orlando, notching an average download speed of 3.4 Mbps. However, New York City was a disaster, with the carrier averaging just 632 Kbps.

Verdict

There's a reason why AT&T puts an asterisk right next to the names of the 4G phones it sells online. It's attached to this disclaimer: "4G speeds delivered by HSPA+ with enhanced backhaul. Available in limited areas. Availability increasing with ongoing backhaul deployment." Based on our testing, AT&T has a long way to go before it can remove that asterisk.

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