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The Connected Planet `4G Scorecard`


Though the precise definition of “4G” depends on who’s doing the defining, there’s no question that U.S. operators have aggressively been deploying mobile broadband networks over the last two years, either through upgrades to their existing high-speed packet access (HSPA) networks or through next-generation technologies like long-term evolution and WiMAX. Not all mobile broadband networks are created equal and even those built on the same radio technology can vary significantly depending on the configuration of the network.

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Connected Planet examined each of the five networks billed as 4G in the U.S. to find how they stacked up. Using both data from the operators and independent measurements from RootMetrics, we’ve compiled detailed profiles of each operator’s network. Some pack quite a punch when it comes to sheer connection speed to the device. Others have built in loads of capacity to ensure they can scale as they add millions of subscribers. Some operators have focused on coverage, expanding their mobile broadband footprints to hundreds of millions of subscribers. Per our evaluations, here are the operators that scored highest in those categories:

Fastest downlink speeds: Verizon Wireless
Fastest uplink speeds: Verizon Wireless
Most extensive Footprint: T-Mobile
Highest capacity network: Clearwire/Sprint

As you might expect, Verizon’s network outperformed the competition by leaps and bounds when it comes to pure speed. It’s a relatively unloaded 4G network, and not only has the latest technology, LTE, at its heart, but it’s also extremely high-bandwidth. T-Mobile’s new dual-carrier HSPA+ network may be a potential challenger, however, if its marketing claims prove true.

Sprint and Clearwire can’t deliver the raw speeds of Verizon, but what they lack in connection speed, they make up in the number of connections supported. Clearwire has devoted 30 MHz of spectrum to WiMAX in all markets and in some cities has turned on an additional 10 MHz carrier. These two operators have plenty of room to grow with more than 100 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum in all markets. Now that Clearwire has finally laid out its future 4G plans, it can build an even higher capacity LTE network.

Given Sprint and Clearwire’s enormous head start, they should have the most extensive network in the industry. Instead their network ranks at least third in total coverage and could possibly rank as low as fourth or dead last, depending on how extensively AT&T and MetroPCS have built their networks today. The biggest network in terms of coverage is T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network covering 200 million pops.

One final note on the methodology before we explore the operators` individual networks: RootMetrics, which provided some of our speed test data (and which we compared to carrier marketing claims), does exhaustive testing in its markets, but it performs its tests solely on smartphones – so no data was available for networks that only support external modems. Root has performed its test batches in nine major metro markets to date: Miami, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, New York and San Francisco. The speed test figures are the aggregated results from tests across those nine markets. They don’t represent a nationwide average, but then again none of the operators offer a nationwide 4G service yet.

In the coming pages we`ll detail the 4G strategies and paths of Verizon Wireless, Sprint/Clearwire, t-Mobile, AT&T and MetroPCS. Click through the numbered navigation below to get started.

Next: 4G Snapshot-Verizon Wireless


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