It almost goes without saying that wireless service in the United States could be a lot better. However, an extensive nationwide test of the four largest carriers' neworks indicates that the billions of dollars AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon poured into network upgrades are finally paying dividends for consumers.
"All of the carriers are putting effort into their networks; all of them are getting better," says Julie Dey, vice president of RootMetrics, the independent testing company that conducted the survey. "It's a really good time to have a smartphone."
During the first half of 2015, RootMetrics sent testers to every state and 125 major metropolitan areas, and conducted more than six million tests to measure overall performance, network reliability, speed, data and text performance.
Verizon was the hands-down winner, with five national "Rootscore awards," and it took first place in every category except text message reliability. AT&T was a close second across five of RootMetric's national categories, and it beat Verizon on texting, coming in first. Verizon won top honors in the RootMetrics survey four times in a row.
Sprint, T-Mobile make gains but still trail Verizon, AT&TSprint and T-Mobile — in that order — were a distant third and fourth, but both showed significant improvements in different areas, according to Dey.
T-Mobile's test results are particularly interesting. The carrier offers very fast and reliable data service in many metro areas, but performance drops off quickly when users leave cities. If you don't leave your home city very often, T-Mobile may well be your best bet. However, if you frequently travel outside of your home ground, or live in a rural area, you might find yourself in the no-bar zone.
Sprint, which has a generally poor reputation, is improving quickly, and it actually scored higher overall than T-Mobile. That's because Sprint's lower scores in metro areas were balanced by higher scores in rural areas. "In most categories, Sprint's scores showed progress in terms of closing the gap with the leaders from prior testing," the RootMetrics reports says.
Verizon received the highest combined score (a weighted measure of performance in all six categories) of 94.5, while AT&T scored 91.8, Sprint 87.5 and Verizon 82.0.
The report show comparative download speeds in different areas, but it also wisely cautions readers not to obsess over raw speed. "You need enough speed to accomplish your everyday tasks easily, but beyond that, extra speed is not necessarily impactful," it reads.
It's also wise to remember that smartphone performance varies from neighborhood to neighborhood within a metro area. So if you're thinking of switching carriers, have a friend who is a customer bring his or her phone to your home or office, and test the performance.
Government opposition has, so far, blocked merger attempts designed to reduce the four U.S. carriers to three. And based on the conclusions in this well-researched report, it's clear that the continued competition in the wireless space is improving service.
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