Philly wireless service: How carriers compare

I wrote last year about a Bellevue, Wash., company, RootMetrics, that uses both drive-testing and crowd-sourcing to put wireless carriers' performance to the test. A RootMetrics snapshot last fall showed Verizon Wireless as the Philadelphia data king, thanks to its early rollout of a network based on fourth-generation LTE technology.

Back then, I reported based on RootMetrics' data, Verizon's "average download speed was about 10 Mbps - fast enough, RootMetrics says, to download a TV show in 5 to 10 minutes." Second-place Sprint and third-place AT&T Mobility showed average download speeds of about 3 megabits per second, and T-Mobile's averaged about 2 Mbps.

So how are the carriers doing now? Verizon still leads, but not as dramatically as a year ago, according to an update that RootMetrics sent me for today's column about a low-cost, prepaid carrier, MetroPCS, that has been rolling out LTE in the Philadelphia area. Even with non-LTE service, T-Mobile was in second place, lending credence to its promise to become the country's "leading value carrier" once it completes its recently announced merger with MetroPCS. Though they use different technologies now, both plan to end up with LTE.

Here's what RootMetrics told me about its Philadelphia data, based on drive-testing in July and August:

Verizon’s LTE network recorded the fastest average download and upload speeds for the third consecutive time in Philadelphia. In fact, Verizon’s average upload speed of 6 Mbps was faster than the average download speed of all other carriers.

Which Carrier Ranks First in Philadelphia?

• Call Performance: Verizon won first place in the call category through statistical differentiation; AT&T, Cricket, MetroPCS, T-Mobile, and Verizon all recorded call failure rates under 3.0%, which is a strong number. Sprint was last at 5.6%

• Text Performance: Verizon recorded the fastest overall receive time (3.4 seconds), while Cricket and Sprint shared last place in the measure, delivering texts in more than one minute 20.2% and 29.1% of the time, respectively.

• AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon all delivered texts in less than 10 seconds at least 70% of the time—this is what many deem a “fast” text experience.

• Data Performance: The RootMetrics data performance tests analyzed how fast each carrier’s network was able to download and upload files and how often a customer could successfully connect to a data network.

Verizon was by far the top performer with an average download speed of 11.6 Mbps and an average upload speed of 6 Mbps.

T-Mobile placed 2nd in average download speed at 4.3 Mbps and 3rd in average upload speed at 1.1 Mbps.

Cricket shared last place with MetroPCS in average download speed.

• Philadelphia Fast Data Speeds

To give consumers a more complete picture of how the carriers performed in Philadelphia, RootMetrics compared how often the carriers recorded speeds greater than 5 Mbps, a threshold they believe easily qualifies as a “fast” data speed.

• Verizon recorded download speeds above 5 Mbps in 66.2% of tests, while T-Mobile recorded download speeds above 5 Mbps in 42.5% of tests.

• Overall: Verizon recorded 1st place results in all categories in Philadelphia. The final results are:

1 – Verizon (87)

2—T-Mobile (61)

3 – AT&T (60)

4—Cricket (53)

4 – MetroPCS (52)

6 – Sprint (49)

To evaluate the mobile experience in the Philadelphia area, RootMetrics conducted 49,083 call, data, and text tests during a seven-day period, covering all hours of the day and night, July 28 – August 3, 2012. The tests, which mimic real-world mobile phone behavior, were conducted using the RootMetrics CoverageMap app running on Android-based, off-the-shelf consumer smartphones purchased from carrier stores in Philadelphia. To ensure that testing aligns with the consumer experience, and to provide each carrier with the chance to rate as highly as possible, RootMetrics utilizes the most advanced smartphones available at the time of testing. Tests are conducted on activities that consumers perform most often: making phone calls, uploading and downloading files from the Internet, and sending and receiving texts.

RootMetrics, by the way, adds the usual - and totally appropriate - caveats about any of this kind of testing: "Mobile performance varies depending on where people live, work, or otherwise spend time." As I described here, its website offers regional maps that incorporate both drive-test data and crowd-sourced data - the latter collected from the phones of ordinary consumers who download an app that reports back, anonymously, on how their carriers perform.