Who Really Has the Fastest 3G Network?

Turn on your TV, and AT&T will tell you it's them. Use T-Mobile's beefed up 3G in Philadelphia and you'll be sure it's not. Is it time for AT&T to pass the champion's belt? Not yet, but maybe soon.

AT&T handily trumped all the other carriers in our last nationwide 3G speed test, surprising a lot of people, if not AT&T, who's been trumpeting the "nation's fastest 3G network" ad line for months now. Just last week, though, we ran our first tests on T-Mobile HPSA+ network, which T-Mobile is starting to roll out in lieu of 4G tech like WiMax and LTE. It's fast. Dead fast. 21Mbps theoretically fast. Streaming HD video fast. And again, it's 3G.

The question of network speed is a simple one. T-Mobile's HSPA+ network blows other 3G wireless out of the water. But this doesn't really matter if it's just available in Philadelphia. If rollout plans are lame or vague (4G rollout plans have been vulnerable to both), then our little test doesn't mean a thing. So we asked T-Mobile:

By the end of 2010, we expect to have HSPA+ deployed across the breadth of our 3G footprint, covering more than 185M people with this faster mobile broadband experience.

That's the most concrete statement we have about a network this fast. The end of 2010, for just over half the country's humans. It's almost April. This is really happening. At CTIA, T-Mo got a bit more specific, saying they plan to roll out HSPA+ in over 100 metro markets by the end of the year, including New York City, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles.

Who Really Has the Fastest 3G Network?


So what about AT&T? We asked them, too:

Honestly, it's quite premature to talk seriously about changing a statistically valid national claim based on part of one market getting HSPA+ and a promise of more. We're very confident in the methodology and data that backs up our long-standing claim – which, by the way, has held up despite the unprecedented increase in data traffic we've seen on the AT&T network over the past three years.

We're deploying the next generation of 3G technology – HSPA 7.2 – as well as thousands of backhaul connections to considerably increase the mobile broadband speeds on our 3G network. And this technology is being made available to the millions of customers who already have a wide selection of HSPA 7.2 compatible handsets and data cards in their hands as opposed to promises of faster connections for a smaller number of customers sometime in the future

Three things: AT&T's right in saying that a 21Mbps to future devices will look different than a 7.2Mbps rollout for existing devices, like the iPhone 3GS. And don't underestimate the backhaul AT&T's talking about—a little support from Time Warner could go a long way toward pushing 3G speeds closer to what's advertised. And though AT&T didn't say it here, they love saying it elsewhere: Verizon's Map for That campaign aside, AT&T 3G covers 233 million people. T-Mobile's only claiming 185m. So, mind the dead zones.

To get back to the question, yes. AT&T's may have to find a new slogan before too long, and T-Mobile looks like it could take the 3G throne. But! (And this is a huge-ass but!) We're still talking about 3G networks here. Fast as it may be, T-Mobile's network is built on 3G tech. Sprint, Verizon and AT&T are playing a longer game with 4G networks, which stand to make even the highest 3G real-life data speeds feel like dialup.

My verdict? Wait, basically forever, because there's always going to be something better on the way. Or if you live in Philadelphia, you know, go for it.