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TechHive's Wireless Week: Testing America's networks

We performed more than 18,000 tests of the major wireless services. Our goal? To name the nation's wireless-network winners and losers.

Our Internet experience has become irreversibly mobile, and the stakes couldn't be higher. It's not unusual for a family to pay $2000 a year in wireless-service bills alone. For anyone living in the United States, in fact, the cost of moving 1MB of data over a cellular network is among the highest in the developed world.

The real speed at which smartphones and tablets connect to the Internet couldn't be more important. That's why PCWorld (and now TechHive) regularly conducts the nation's largest independent-media study of real-world wireless network performance.

Focusing on the four major U.S. wireless networks, we seek to arm you with the information you need to judge the carriers' marketing claims about their networks, weigh the relative value of each carrier's offerings, and ultimately make a more informed decision when buying a device and signing up for service.

This year's study is our largest to date. TechHive, in partnership with testing firm OpenSignal, visited 20 medium-size and large U.S. cities in April and May to measure the speeds of the AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon 3G and 4G wireless data services. Our mission was to capture a real-life snapshot of the performance of each company's service.

Alpha dogs and LTE

We can't present this year's findings without first calling attention to wireless-infrastructure changes in the United States. Currently the carriers are continuing their transition from the older 3G technology to the newer, and much faster, 4G/LTE. The U.S. wireless market's two big dogs, AT&T and Verizon, are well into the process of building their LTE networks and moving customers over to them. Meanwhile, the two small dogs, Sprint and T-Mobile, are just now getting their LTE game on.

Verizon currently serves 287 markets with LTE, while AT&T has delivered LTE to 200 markets. Sprint has announced coverage in a good number of cities--88--but our tests show that its LTE network performance is relatively weak so far. T-Mobile has formally announced only seven LTE cities, but strangely, we were able to connect to the carrier's network and perform tests in many more.

The "LTE gap" was one of the reasons why Sprint and T-Mobile lost a lot of subscribers to AT&T and Verizon in 2012. During the year, the two big dogs poached nearly half of their new postpaid subscribers from the two small ones. At present, AT&T and Verizon together serve more than two-thirds of wireless subscribers in the United States. (Verizon has a slight lead in overall share.) Sprint holds 17 percent, and T-Mobile owns 13 percent.

As Sprint and T-Mobile make progress with their new LTE networks, some analysts say, subscriber defections may dramatically slow down in 2013. T-Mobile reported subscriber losses of only about 200,000 in the first quarter of this year, versus more than 500,000 in the last quarter of 2012. Many of Sprint's subscriber losses have resulted from the shutdown of its Nextel network and the ensuing defection of Nextel customers to other carriers. That shutdown will soon be completed, and Sprint's subscriber losses may slow way down as a result, too.

Wireless Week on TechHive

But new wireless technologies and coverage announcements mean little compared with the actual day-to-day availability and performance of the networks as they exist today. What really counts is how quickly and easily smartphone and tablet users can connect to the Web and get the information they want.

This week on TechHive, we'll be publishing the results of this year's study, which examined the 3G and 4G services of the four major wireless service providers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. We'll also look at how well the services work indoors versus outdoors, give you a glimpse inside the global network operation center of one of the major carriers, and tell you more than you ever wanted to know about testing wireless networks at street level.

Because this year's study yielded more data than we got from our studies in years past, we'll be presenting the data in a series of features, videos, infographics, and interactive maps that will run throughout the week here at TechHive.

Monday

We start off the week by explaining the methods and tools we used to test the wireless services. You can also see a video of OpenSignal's Gabe Scelta demonstrating how he moved about each city to conduct the tests.

Tuesday

Tomorrow we'll publish the results of our tests of the carriers' 3G networks in 20 U.S. cities, along with our analysis of which services are improving and which ones are languishing.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, we'll look at the speeds of the new 4G/LTE networks that are rapidly being built around the country. Accompanying this feature will be an infographic about the state of LTE in the United States.

Thursday

On Thursday we'll evaluate all of our testing results together, and declare some overall winners and losers based on the speed of the 3G and 4G services the carriers offer.

Friday

To wrap up Wireless Week, we'll take a look at how the wireless services perform when measured indoors versus outdoors. We'll also spotlight T-Mobile's freshly launched LTE service, which is pumping out some impressive speeds in the handful of markets where it's available.

We hope you'll find some useful information in the data we've collected over the past six weeks. And please let us know about your own wireless experiences in the comments section below this article or any of the other stories we post this week.


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