Why My 4G Is Faster Than Your 4G (Sometimes)S

Yes, 4G is super fast and yes, we love it. But not all 4G is created equal. Even when you're talking about the same kind of 4G—LTE. Now that AT&T's launched their LTE network in a handful of cities, we can finally ask, "Who's faster? Verizon or AT&T?" Well, it's not quite that simple.

A study released today by the wireless analytics company Metrico set out to discover which LTE network was faster: AT&T or Verizon. The firm performed data and web speed tests on five devices in three cities where both carriers have LTE networks. Metrico collected 24,000 samples from five locations in each of those cities. The result?

Well, holy smokes, it turns out that AT&T is faster in their tests—thirty percent faster on average. That might be surprising, since it's like, you know, AT&T. And Verizon is typically considered to have a better network. What's up with that? There's a few possible reasons.

The Crowds

Verizon's LTE network launched just about a year ago, and well, we're not the only ones who want 4G-fast internet. So there's a lot more people on it now than there were a year ago. And in a given spot, the more people using the network means less bandwidth to go around, quite simply. It's a finite resource. And the (reasonable) expectation has been that Verizon's network would eventually take a small hit from crowding. Well, in some areas, that might be the case now. Conversely, AT&T's LTE network is super new. There aren't very many people on it. So there's more bandwidth to go around on their network. That might be different soon.

The Device

And then there's the device itself. The Metrico study used five different devices, and while the AT&T outperformed Verizon on data speeds, webpages actually loaded faster on the Verizon gadgets. What's more, data speeds varied a lot from one device to another—even though they were presumably trafficking the same airwaves. So, sluggish load times could be your phone's fault, and not necessarily your carrier.

Location, Location, Location

You know how somebody tells you how amazing Verizon is at their house or office, but AT&T is totally miserable? But in your experience, it's the exact opposite? Location is everything when it comes to data speeds. Particularly when you're talking about relatively young networks, like AT&T and Verizon's LTE networks—they're not going to blanket the land quite as heavily or thoroughly as their existing 3G networks for a little long while. AT&T only covers 15 cities and 70 million Americans with LTE; Verizon covers 190 markets and 186 million Americans. So it's more likely you'll run into a location with spotty coverage, particularly as you reach the fringes of cities, which is where most of the networks' 4G coverage is being pushed—since that's where the most competition is. There's also a lot of other complexities related to location on a smaller level—where cell towers are, how much spectrum is available to the carrier in a given spot (which is the entire reason AT&T said it wanted to swallow T-Mobile), how much bandwidth there is, etc.

So, while AT&T may be faster than Verizon today in a handful of cities, in another year, after more people jump on the network and AT&T and Verizon have had a chance to build them out further, it might be a different story. Or you know, exactly the same. [Metrico via Wired]