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AT&T vs. Verizon: LTE showdown in the Big Apple

Roughly a year after Verizon Wireless established LTE-based 4G mobile phone and data service in New York City, AT&T's rival LTE network is up and running here and in several other cities. Although its average speeds lagged behind Verizon's in my tests, AT&T's 4G LTE service has a lot going for it.

That's because in a few spots the AT&T network wasn't just fast, it was blazingly fast, with a peak throughput of over 40Mbps. More details on the strengths and weaknesses of each network later. First, let's take a look at the technology.

AT&T's new network is based on the same Long Term Evolution protocol that Verizon's 4G network uses. As the latest upgrade of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), LTE has a theoretical top speed of over 100Mbps.

At the moment, both AT&T and Verizon take advantage of the 700MHz spectrum band that was used for analog TV broadcasts prior to 2008, when it was auctioned off by the FCC. As its LTE rollout proceeds in other cities, AT&T plans to use the 1.7GHz and 2.1GHz bands as well, according to a company representative.

Network availability

So far, AT&T has set up its 4G LTE service in 28 major metropolitan areas, from Boston to San Diego. By comparison, Verizon, which has a year's head start, offers LTE service in nearly 200 cities -- some as small as Dover, Del. -- as well as in 122 airports.

Neither network has much in the way of LTE service in rural areas such as the upper Midwest and plains states, although Verizon recently added Duluth, Minn., to its list. Look for both networks to continue to broaden their reach, but don't expect 4G service in places like West Texas that haven't even gotten 3G service yet.

In the New York metropolitan area, Verizon's network reaches beyond the five boroughs into parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, while AT&T's LTE network is restricted to New York City. In fact, my office, which is a couple miles north of the city border, sometimes has access to AT&T's LTE service, other times not.

Speed tests

To see how these two mobile networks stack up, I ventured in and around New York City for three weeks in January and early February. I had with me two Android smartphones -- an LG Nitro and a Motorola Droid Razr -- which I used to gauge the AT&T and Verizon LTE networks, respectively.

4G confusion

While Verizon was outfitting its cell towers with 4G LTE equipment in 2010 and 2011, AT&T was upgrading its 3G HSPA network to work with evolved high-speed packet access (HSPA+) technology, which brought a speed boost to much of its existing data network.

Like T-Mobile, AT&T refers to its HSPA+ service as 4G, but its theoretical peak download speed of 84Mbps falls short of LTE's 100Mbps theoretical peak. What's more, HSPA+ enhances networks originally built for voice traffic, while LTE networks are built especially for data traffic. Thus, HSPA+ is regarded by many industry watchers (including me) as more akin to 3.5G technology than 4G.

Now AT&T is rolling out its own LTE network, which in my book can more legitimately be called 4G. The problem is that AT&T is still calling its HSPA+ service 4G in ads and in icons on HSPA+ phones. The new service is called 4G LTE -- a difference that may not be obvious to consumers.

To do this, I first loaded Ookla's Speedtest.net app on each phone. At eight separate locations, I took readings for download and upload speeds as well as latency. To eliminate variations due to Internet bottlenecks, I took simultaneous, side-by-side readings for each network. After noting the highs and lows, I averaged all the results.

In some places, AT&T's brand new 4G LTE network was remarkably fast -- for instance, it hit a scorching peak speed of 42.8Mbps in the Wall Street area. That's nearly 50% faster than Verizon's top speed of 28.2Mbps and more than five times what I typically see from a wired cable modem in my office.

Granted, that was in just one location, and AT&T's LTE network struggled in other places, such as 79th Street and West End Avenue, where throughput was only 250Kbps -- about one-tenth the speed you'd expect from a 3G connection. It's clear that AT&T needs to build out its network more fully and work on delivering consistent bandwidth. In contrast, Verizon's slowest download reading was 8.4Mbps, showing how mature and dependable its network has become over the past year.

Consistency was the watchword for Verizon's 4G LTE network, which achieved an average download speed of 14.0Mbps, about 5% faster than when I measured its speed a year ago. By comparison, AT&T's average download speed was 12.9Mbps, well behind Verizon.

Upload speeds are important to those who need to transmit images or video to a server as well as those who update Web sites. Here, the data showed a similar pattern, with AT&T being able to push 4.4Mbps of data upstream on average versus Verizon's 5.8Mbps.

Using Speedtest.net's Ping feature, which measures the time it takes to send a signal from the phone to the company's servers and back, I recorded similar latencies for both networks -- 69 milliseconds for AT&T and 70ms for Verizon, compared to 13ms for the typical wired cable modem setup.

In short, both networks were capable of delivering a lot of bandwidth. I was able to watch high-definition videos, listen to Internet radio and conduct Skype video calls over both networks.

There were occasional glitches, though. For instance, while waiting for a train I tried to watch the latest viral video, of an unbalanced washing machine tearing itself apart. The AT&T phone's screen showed a 4G LTE connection and the YouTube page came up, but the video wouldn't start. At the same time, the video ran smoothly on the phone using Verizon's LTE network. Later, in a different location, it worked fine over AT&T LTE as well.

The price of performance

AT&T has five phones, two tablets and a mobile hotspot available that work with its 4G LTE network, with several more devices promised to ship this year. The LG Nitro HD phone I used costs $200 with a two-year contract. On top of a voice plan, the phone requires an AT&T data plan that provides 300MB, 3GB or 5GB per month for $20, $30 or $50, respectively. The 5GB plan also includes the ability to use your smartphone as a mobile hotspot. The 3GB and 5GB plans carry a $10 per GB overage fee, while the 300MB plan charges a stiff $20 for every 300MB you go over your limit.

Verizon sells more than 20 devices, ranging from tablets and phones to mobile hotspots, for the 4G LTE network. The Droid Razr I used costs $200. You'll also need a voice plan and a data plan, which offers 2GB, 5GB or 10GB monthly data limits for $30, $50 or $80, respectively. All three Verizon data plans carry a $10/GB overage fee.

At a glance

AT&T 4G LTE service

AT&T

Price: $20/mo. for up to 300MB of data; $30/mo. for 3GB; $50/mo. for 5GB

Pros: Excellent top download speed

Cons: Lower average speed than Verizon's 4G LTE network, inconsistent speed results, limited coverage areas

Verizon 4G LTE service

Verizon Wireless

Price: $30/mo. for up to 2GB of data; $50/mo. for 5GB; $80/mo. for 10GB

Pros: Great upload and download speeds, good selection of LTE-capable devices, decent national coverage

Cons: Top speed slower than AT&T's

For those with modest data needs, AT&T's $30 plan offers 3GB per month, compared with just 2GB for Verizon's $30 plan. For data hogs, on the other hand, Verizon's $80 for 10GB plan is a bargain. Note, too, that Verizon currently has a limited-time offer that lets existing customers double the amount of data they can use per month if they buy a new 4G LTE smartphone.

(Not sure how much data you need? See "Smartphone data shakeup: The end of unlimited" for a breakdown of smartphone users' typical data consumption.)

Bottom line

All my tests were done at specific locations in a single metropolitan area; a different location might yield different results. Nevertheless, my results showcase the potential of LTE technology to deliver high-speed data to those on the go. If LTE is available in your area, I highly recommend getting a device that supports it.

Today, Verizon's LTE network is the clear leader in terms of geographic scope and consistent, speedy data delivery -- but the company should not be complacent. AT&T's fledgling 4G LTE network shows promise and even the potential to be faster than Verizon's network. What's more, Sprint is getting into the LTE game as well, with initial rollouts in a handful of cities planned for the first half of this year. By this time next year, Verizon could have some serious competition indeed.


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