Which cell phone data network is the fastest?

Technology • Tribune tested carriers' speeds across Salt Lake Valley.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Comedian Louis C.K. once wondered how people can complain about the speed of their cellphones in this age of technological marvels.

"Is the speed of light too slow for you?" he joked. "Can you give a second for the picture of Axl Rose to get into your … phone?!"

But for many, fast is never fast enough. And by 2015, more people are expected to connect to the Internet via mobile than a wired service, according to technology analyst International Data Corp. Data speed and coverage have become key factors in choosing a cellular phone provider. More mobile phones are using the newer, faster 4G networks, and now the new iPad introduced last week for the first time will use Verizon's and AT&T's 4G networks.

With that in mind, The Salt Lake Tribune put the top four cell carriers in Utah to the test. Using six smartphones, The Tribune traveled to 114 random locations around Salt Lake County, from Bluffdale to Rose Park, to test the 3G and 4G networks of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

See the interactive map above for how well each network fared. By clicking on each dot on the map where The Tribune tested, readers can see the speeds for each carrier and service. There is also an intensity map that breaks down the results by network.

Verizon 4G on top • The Tribune tested each area during the day using five Android-based cellphones provided by Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon to measure their networks. An iPhone was used to test AT&T's 3G network. The free mobile application Speedtest.net was used to measure the networks' download and upload speeds.

Verizon's 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) network, which was turned on countywide June 21, was by far the fastest network in Salt Lake County, averaging a download speed of just over 8 megabits per second (Mb/s). With that speed, a user can download a five-minute song in about five seconds or stream a high-definition movie to a television without any need for buffering.

Network speeds are measured in bits per second, while file sizes are measured in bytes. Eight bits are equal to 1 byte, and you would need about 8,000 kilobits of data to transmit a typical 1 MB cellphone picture. This would take less than two seconds to upload on average with Verizon 4G, but nearly 13 seconds on average to upload with Verizon 3G.

The second-fastest download speed was T-Mobile's 4G network (5,281 Kb/s), followed by Sprint's (3,412 Kb/s). Meanwhile, Verizon's 4G upload speeds — the ability to send data from your phone — also was far and away the fastest, with an average speed of 5.5 Mb/s. With that, a person could upload a typical 1- to 2-megabyte picture in about two to five seconds.

(AT&T is the only major carrier that does not yet have a 4G network in the state. Regional representatives did not know when it will be turned on.)

But while Verizon has the fastest 4G network, it also has one of the slowest 3G networks. Its average 3G download speed was 694 kilobits per second (Kb/s), or .69 Mb/s., above only Sprint's 3G network.

AT&T had the fastest 3G network, averaging 2.7 Mb/s. That's because the latest iPhone 4S used in the test incorporates new technology called HSPA that runs faster on AT&T's existing 3G network. "It's significantly faster," said Ken Malm, AT&T's network manager for the Rocky Mountain region. "I would say we've been seeing common speeds of about 5 megabits per second."

What didn't become a factor in speeds, according to the tests, was location. No particular neighborhood of Salt Lake County posted better or worse speeds than another, largely because dozens of cell sites are deployed to cover a city. And the ability to connect was fairly good throughout the county. Of the 114 testing locations, only about a dozen could not connect to a network at the tested time.

Mobile broadband growing • With the growing popularity of video and music streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify and skyrocketing sales of smartphones, e-readers and tablets — nearly half of Americans now own a smarpthone as opposed to a basic cellphone, according to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life project — mobile broadband consumption will only increase, according to analysts.

Mobile data traffic is expected to increase 35 times in the U.S. from 2009 to 2015, according to technology analysts The Yankee Group and Coda Research. And Americans will use nearly 12 trillion megabytes of mobile broadband a year in 2015, according to Cisco Visual Networking Index, nearly 20 times more than today.

To meet that growing demand, Verizon was the first carrier to start its newer, more advanced 4G LTE network in Utah. (Sprint's 4G system is a slower network — what some have termed "3.5G" — called WiMAX while T-Mobile uses an HSPA version of 4G.)

"As that usage increases, we continue to perform well," said Wanda Oppenheim, executive director of network for Verizon Wireless' mountain region. "We make sure we provide the capacity needed, and 4G will give us more capacity for the same spectrum."

The advantage of 4G is faster average speeds up to 12 Mb/s (in our tests, some areas hit 18 Mb/s), more than twice as fast as the fastest 3G network by AT&T.

"It really is fully dedicated to data transmission," Verizon spokesman Robert Kelley said. "It's not competing with other things like voice calls or text messaging on the line. It's dedicated to high-speed data."

For its part, AT&T has spent more than $140 million since 2009 to make more than 375 network upgrades, from updating cell sites to deploying more fiber-optic connections for its improved HSPA technology. Currently, AT&T has turned on its 4G network in 26 U.S. cities, but none in Utah.

About 300 million Americans subscribe to at least one wireless service, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, a consortium of the wireless communications industry. And "the mobile market is ripe for competition," according to a 2011 survey by Oracle on mobile trends. More than three-quarters of the respondents said they would switch carriers over better pricing, and 83 percent said they would go to a "non-traditional telecom provider such as Google, Sony, or Facebook" if they offered a similar service.

What are your readings? • The Tribune's readings are a snapshot in time, and your results will vary depending on the time of day, model of phone and other factors. To help create a clearer picture of network performance, readers can download the free app Speedtest.net on their smartphone, and run the same test as The Tribune.

To test and share your own results, go to bit.ly/slccelldata. To view other readers' data, go to bit.ly/slccellreadermap.


Google+: +Vincent Horiuchi

Jessica Miller contributed to this report. To measure the 3G and 4G network speeds around Salt Lake County, the Salt Lake Tribune used five different cellphones provided by three of the four main carriers, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, as well an AT&T iPhone provided by a Tribune reporter. Speed tests were conducted over a two-week period using the iPhone and Android application from Speedtest.net, which measures the download and upload speeds in kilobits per second. The higher the number, the faster the connection speed.

To understand the data speeds, 1,024 kilobits = 1 megabit. Eight megabits = one megabyte. So in downloading a one-megabyte picture, it would take approximately one second on a connection speed of about 8,000 kilobits per second.

While not scientific, the readings are real-world tests of data speeds from the four main carriers. The tests were conducted during the day and all measured with servers in Salt Lake City to obtain the fastest possible speeds. The following phones were used:

AT&T 3G • iPhone 4S

Sprint 3G and 4G • HTC EVO 3D

T-Mobile 3G • Samsung Vibrant

T-Movile 4G • Samsung Galaxy S II

Verizon 3G • Samsung Illusion

Verizon 4G • Motorola Droid Razr