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Nationwide 4G Showdown

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


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Verizon Wireless launched its 4G network in December of 2010, much later than Sprint and T-Mobile, but the speeds were worth the wait. The carrier's LTE technology enables super-fast 5 to 12 Mbps downloads, nearly doubling the competition on paper. And Verizon's upload speeds are even more impressive. While the other providers are stuck at about 1 Mbps on the uplink, Verizon Wireless delivers 2 to 5 Mbps. That's the difference between being able to upload an HD video to the cloud in seconds instead of waiting until you get home. This kind of overall responsiveness also makes streaming high-quality video and multiplayer gaming a breeze.

At last count, Verizon Wireless had 77 markets covered, and the carrier says that number will rise to 147 by the end of the year. Thanks to Verizon's use of the 700-MHz spectrum, its LTE network is designed to offer strong coverage indoors.

4G Device Selection/ What We Tested

Verizon Wireless currently sells only three 4G phones, and they cost a relatively steep $249 to $299, or at least $50 more than 4G phones on competing networks. As of press time we were still waiting to see the Motorola Bionic hit shelves, the first Android phone to combine a dual-core processor with 4G LTE. Verizon Wireless also offers one 4G tablet (the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1; the Motorola Xoom was pending certification for 4G LTE as of press time), two mobile hotspots, and two USB modems. That's a total of nine 4G devices.

We tested the following gear:

HTC Thunderbolt: $249

Pantech 4G LTE UML290: $49.99

Samsung 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot SCH-LC11: $49.99

Performance

Verizon says its 4G LTE network is up to 10 times faster than 3G. That's impressive, but we were more blown away by how much speedier this carrier was than the 4G competition. According to Speedtest.net, Verizon's average download rate for our five test cities (12.3 Mbps) was more than 2.5 times faster than T-Mobile, more than three times faster than Sprint, and 5.5 times faster than AT&T. Verizon's 4.7 Mbps average upload rate was just as jaw-dropping, once again wiping the floor with T-Mobile (more than three times faster), Sprint (5.8 times faster), and AT&T (eight times faster).

When we put Verizon's LTE technology to the test downloading a large 155MB file, it trumped the other 4G networks once more, averaging 4.4 Mbps. That's not as dramatic as our Speedtest.net results, but Sprint and T-Mobile were more than a full Mbps behind. When it came to uploading a 2.7MB file, Verizon Wireless averaged 1.7 Mbps. T-Mobile was the only other carrier that came close, averaging 997 Kbps.

As for downloading websites, Verizon finished in an average of 10.2 seconds across all of the devices we tested, beating both T-Mobile and Sprint (12.6 and 14 seconds, respectively) and more than 6 seconds faster than AT&T.

Verizon Wireless delivered the fastest download speeds in Chicago, averaging a blistering 18.9 Mbps on Speedtest.net, and the best upload speeds in Atlanta, averaging 7.6 Mbps. The carrier fared "worst" in San Francisco, where it offered average download speeds of 9.9 Mbps, which is still well within the carrier's claimed 5 to 12 Mbps range.

Still, Verizon's LTE network is far from perfect. Often when using the UML290 USB modem, the device would randomly drop the connection or say it was dormant and refuse to load web pages. Our New York-based tester said that Verizon's Samsung mobile hotspot device twice lost its 4G connectivity, requiring a restart. Hand-offs between 3G and 4G also took longer than we'd like. Nevertheless, when downloading and uploading large files, Verizon Wireless produced the fewest failures with 24.

Verdict

Verizon's LTE network has really raised the bar in terms of pure speed, making it the 4G champ among the big four carriers. No one else even comes close when it comes to Verizon's download and upload rates, and its expanding selection of 4G devices deliver remarkable performance (even though the phones are on the pricey side). The provider still needs to improve the stability of its devices and network so you can enjoy those speeds longer without interruptions. But overall Verizon Wireless is the one to beat.

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