The Definitive Coast-to-Coast 3G Data TestS

After a grueling eight-city coast-to-coast test of the 3G networks run by AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, we've come up with some clear-cut test results. Think you know who has the best network? Think again.

The Test
3G is more important now than ever before. Obviously, AT&T made a big push over the summer to augment 3G for the arrival of the updated iPhone, but almost every smartphone and most standard phones in the three largest cell networks runs on a supposedly fast 3G network, and T-Mobile's 3G network is in the works. The technology can, at least on paper, rival home broadband. AT&T's HSPA network, for instance, is supposed to deliver data at up to 3.6Mbps downstream, while letting you upload at 1.4Mbps. Meanwhile, the EVDO Rev. A that Sprint and Verizon use promises a comparable "burst rate" of 3Mbps up, with 1.5Mbps down.

Like a lot of business travelers, we bloggy types have a particular interest in 3G USB dongles, since we're often trying to file stories far away from any decent wi-fi. Figuring out who has the best service quickly becomes a fixation, which becomes an obsession, which, as usual, becomes an ultimate Battlemodo.

In lieu of jetsetting all around the country, we FedExed our testing package from one staffer's home to the next, until we'd hit eight of the country's biggest cities. In each city, testers were instructed to put the three cards—one each from AT&T Sprint and Verizon—through some pretty rigorous paces. (Note: In case you're wondering why T-Mobile isn't represented, the carrier doesn't yet have the coverage required, nor does it yet offer 3G USB dongles or cards like the ones we used in testing. Next year, maybe.)

The testers chose three to five locations (preferably including one suburban spot). Parking themselves somewhere, they would connect each card to the laptop, running Speakeasy's bandwidth test five times for each device, and then follow it up with an auxiliary battery of repeated pageload and file download tests, in order to verify Speakeasy's readings.

The Gear

The Definitive Coast-to-Coast 3G Data TestS

The USB dongles we used for testing were typical 3G cards from the carriers: AT&T's Sierra USBConnect 881, Sprint's Sierra Wireless Compass 597 and Verizon Wireless's Novatel USB727. We used both a Lenovo and a MacBook Pro, but at any given time the cards were being tested on one or the other, in order to keep hardware from being a comparative issue. (After all this extensive testing, we don't think results have much to do with your platform or laptop of choice—even the USB dongles' antennae didn't have as much relevance as sheer position to cell tower.)

While it may sound like hopping around town testing cards is easy, rest assured it was plenty challenging. Any test where any of the three cards wasn't playing well with a laptop, and the whole test had to be scrapped. This may not be a clean-room lab study, but we kept firm to our methods and the results speak to that. There's a reason this may be the most information anyone has gathered, independently, on the subject.

Download Performance
As far as download performance goes, Sprint won overall, beating AT&T five cities to three, and handily beating Verizon in four cities while losing close contests in four more. To round it out, Verizon beat AT&T in four cities, tied in one, and lost in three.

The Definitive Coast-to-Coast 3G Data TestS

These results aren't so random when you plot them on the map. Besides proving that Sprint is a serious contender in almost any location—and should be taken seriously as a 3G and 4G data service provider, no matter what your feelings are about its basic phone service—we have confirmed what we thought, that the regional Bell heavies (and the former GTE) hold their own where their real estate holdings are most vast.

AT&T had troubles in the Northeast and Chicago, but down the coast in Raleigh and over in Austin, it's probably no surprise that the southern Bell conglomerate came out victorious. On the West Coast, it was a toss-up except in Portland, where Verizon couldn't quite keep it together.

Upload Performance
What are more surprising are the upload performance results: AT&T totally kicked ass here, winning six cities and barely losing to Sprint in the other two. Verizon was the slowpoke here, though it did nudge Sprint out of the way twice, and beat it soundly once.

The Definitive Coast-to-Coast 3G Data TestS


Although the same regional attributes crop up here—AT&T is at its weakest in Boston and Chicago—AT&T clearly has a technological edge with HSUPA. Well, it's either that or all of the 3G build-out meant to lure iPhone 3G customers has left the carrier with an awful lot of unused upstream bandwidth, since smartphone users download a lot more than they upload. (This is assuming that upstream and downstream operate independently, as they seemed to in AT&T's case.)

Even when the download performance was crappy, AT&T's upload talents shined through, indicating that the congestion argument could hold merit. So, for the time being anyway, if you're into sending big files, or running some kind of masochistic mobile torrent service, AT&T is the right choice.

The Cities
Want to check out your city or region? Have a look at the eight contestants in this round, and while you're at it, you'll get to know a little more about the Giz staffers who took time to test the gear. If we didn't get to your town this time around, don't fret—maybe we'll get to it next year...or when we eventually test LTE vs. WiMax.

Austin
Boston
Chicago
New York City
Portland
Raleigh-Durham
San Francisco and the Bay Area
Seattle

Thanks to Mark, Sean, Andi, Eric and Jack for testing. Special shout-out to Mahoney for helping put together the testing regimen and instructions, and to my brilliant wife for working her Excel bar-graphing magic on our unwieldy spreadsheets .