Crowd-Sourced Study Ranks T-Mobile Top among US Wireless Carriers

by Matt Klassen on February 3, 2016

opensignal-studyThere’s no question that efforts to parse the debate about America’s best wireless carrier are clouded by a great deal of noise, as each company touts itself as the fastest, most comprehensive, most reliable, and the most powerful. But somewhere amongst the claims, the hype, the marketing, sits the truth about who holds top spot, and according to wireless testing firm OpenSignal, that honour surprisingly goes to T-Mobile.

According to the crowd-sourced report titled “State of Mobile Networks: USA,” T-Mobile was recognized for the speed and responsiveness of its 3G network. Verizon won for its 4G coverage (no surprise there), and both carriers shared the top spot in 4G speed tests. Sprint earned one award for the latency of its 4G network, and AT&T came up empty.

In a nutshell, while Verizon still reigns supreme over the 4G LTE market among U.S. wireless carriers, T-Mobile is making strong gains. In fact, T-Mobile is closing in on AT&T when it comes to nationwide coverage, and coupled with the fact that the UnCarrier is tied with Verizon on 4G speed, and we may have a new heir apparent.

Unlike other such wireless research firms, OpenSignal is a crowd-sourced mobile data company, meaning that it uses the information gleaned from participants who downloaded the company’s app on their phone to create a picture of network performance across the country. For this particular study, OpenSignal used data from 180,000 people using various networks all across the country.

The most significant finding of the study, I would argue, is the information regarding network coverage, where T-Mobile still finished third, but made strong gains. According to the data, T-Mobile’s 4G coverage now stands at 81 percent, meaning that whenever users were connected, T-Mobile’s 4G subscribers were able to get a 4G signal 81.2 percent of the time. Verizon still stands at the top, boasting 86.7 coverage, while AT&T stands precariously in second, slightly ahead of T-Mobile at 82.6 percent.

In regards to average network speed, T-Mobile came in at 12.3 megabits per second, infinitesimally faster than Verizon’s 12 megabits per second. Given how close both where, OpenSignal declared it a statistical tie and gave each the 4G speed award.

“The key here is that the past year has been the year of coverage growth for us,” said a T-Mobile spokeswoman.

But the problem with crowd-sourcing as a testing methodology, at least according to Verizon, is that the results, particularly regarding network coverage, can be skewed. “Studies that use crowd-sourced data sound cool, but they can easily be misleading — when you can’t reliably connect to a network, there’s no way to measure its performance or speed,” said a Verizon spokesman. Simply put, you can’t benefit from T-Mobile’s speed if you can’t connect to its network, which is the case across the vast majority of rural America.

Not only that, but I’m sure the sorts of people who would participate in a crowd-sourced test would impact the results as well, as I would guess they’re more likely to be urban users, cities and other such densely populated areas where all carriers have a presence. To say that T-Mobile users connect 81 percent of the time where the network has coverage says very little about how much coverage, as in nationwide presence, the network actually has.

But as with every study of this sort, particularly ones based on crowd-sourced results, they need to be taken with a grain of salt. These are averages across the nation, meaning they could very well have little to do with network performance where you live and work, and little to do with what carrier you should ultimately choose to get the best wireless experience.

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