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Inside iPhone 4S US mobile data: AT&T vs Sprint vs Verizon

Sprint is indeed the only unlimited iPhone data contract still available

And then there's Sprint. As the newest iPhone carrier in the US, Sprint is also the last to still offer an unlimited data contract. The problem, at least right now, is that Sprint's data service is so bad it's unlikely you could ever get your money's worth of data using a Sprint iPhone. While neither Sprint nor Apple have really addressed the issue directly, there seems to be something tragically wrong with how the iPhone works on Sprint's network. If it's not something unique to Sprint, it would be hard to imagine how Sprint has remained in business this long.

We briefly compared Sprint's iPhone service to an Android HTC EVO 4G phone, and found better data throughput on the EVO in the same location, even when confined to working on the 3G network. Sprint has been selling the EVO for much longer, so it appears to have worked out more kinks that have not yet been resolved for the new iPhone. Until Sprint solves its iPhone service issues, it would be frustrating to try to use Sprint as an iPhone service provider.

Sprint served the slowest data by far, and we found "no service" problems more often on Sprint's network than AT&T. Even at times when the Sprint iPhone was able to complete a data test, it often wouldn't work well enough to bring up a map, check email, or respond to Siri requests. Given how frustratingly bad Sprint's 3G network was in practice, it seems very likely that there must be a fix in the works to solve the iPhone's terrible performance on its new carrier. That wouldn't be unprecedented, as Apple has consistently released updates that have aimed at improving how well the device works on specific carriers.

At this time however, it's extremely hard to recommend the Sprint iPhone, unless the problems we saw were unique only to San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Reno, Nevada, and various points in between. Judging from online service complaints, it appears Sprint's network needs additional work to properly support the iPhone.

US iPhone carrier overview

While our tests averaged in poor results obtained in each carrier's "service holes" that we discovered while performing tests at scores of locations throughout California, the tests weren't intended to capitalize on areas of known poor service. For example, we didn't purposely conduct a series of tests in metro stations or in other areas where most carriers seem to lack decent service, such as within the bowels of San Francisco General Hospital or deep in the middle of the forests around Lake Tahoe.

We tried to incorporate a variety of test locations that reflected where users might expect to actually use their phone: in the car on the freeway in both urban and some rural settings, walking downtown, in urban parks and in residential neighborhoods. The results seemed very consistent: AT&T regularly delivered significantly faster speeds, although it was not always the winner and occasionally failed to find service. Verizon seemed to deliver moderately good service at slower overall speeds, but often continued to work after AT&T and Sprint began to fail due to being in a difficult topography or further from civilization. Sprint was just flat out abysmal overall, although it did occasionally deliver top speeds rivaling Verizon.

It's also important to consider that the data speeds you enjoy will be influenced by the demand around you. For example, we observed download data speeds of 2.0 to 3.9 Mbps on AT&Ts network at LA's Hollywood Bowl when we initially arrived for a show, but after the concert venue filled up, data service plummeted to a nearly unusable 0.18 to 0.27 Mbps during the show's intermission, when the entire area was saturated with smartphone users trying to post photos on Facebook.

At the same location, Verizon initially provided downloads that peaked at 1.1 Mbps, but which similarly plunged below 0.150 once the venue filled up. Sprint's service there was at best reaching 0.660 to 0.730 Mbps before many had arrived, but similarly dropped into a virtually unusable state, reporting data throughput of just 0.022 Mbps once the area was full.

The idea that AT&T is a terrible service provider and certainly the worst in the US (and in particular in San Francisco), was flatly refuted in our testing. AT&T not only won overall in speed tests by a wide margin, but also delivered the fastest peak scores by far. The carrier also trounced its competitors within the average scores tallied in San Francisco and in LA, and even beat both Verizon and Sprint in rural tests between San Francisco, Sacramento and Reno Nevada.

Examining the data scores we achieved on each carrier (compiled by the independent third party app, which rates bandwidth by sending bits back and forth to its servers) further notes that AT&T's throughput only dipped below 0.500 Mbps in 17.5 percent of our tests. Verizon dipped below that same threshold in 47.6 percent of our tests, while Sprint delivered scores below that more than half the time, in 55 percent of the tests.

Conversely, AT&T's download results were better than 1.5 Mbps in more than half of our tests, 50.8 percent of the time. Verizon only beat that threshold in 11.1 percent of our tests, while Sprint only exceeded it 6.4 percent of the time.
These findings make it even harder to recommend Verizon over AT&T, for anyone other than individuals who happen to live or work in a known AT&T dead zone. AT&T's fatal flaw is that it doesn't cover as much area, so its tremendous speed advantage can become irrelevant when you need to place a call or look up information just as you happen to walk into a dead spot.

Sad prospects for improvement in US mobile networks

The results indicate that AT&T has made significant improvements to its network over the past few years as the iPhone's exclusive carrier in the US, and suggests that the complaints about AT&T as a carrier have been somewhat overblown, just as issues with the iPhone's longevity, antenna design, battery life and other factors have been wildly overstated by its most negative, vocal critics. At the same time, the hope that AT&T might rapidly improve its network by incorporating T-Mobile's resources is looking increasingly less likely as the FCC moves to block the merger on the grounds of competition.

Unfortunately, the FCC isn't bothering to make any efforts to actually compel US mobile carriers to build out better coverage, nor is it doing anything to supply carriers with the bandwidth they need to offer globally competitive service. In the case of AT&T and T-Mobile, the agency is blindly following an agenda that prioritizes the number of national mobile competitors over the sustainability of each of those carriers, apparently unaware that T-Mobile's parent company, Deutsche Telecom, doesn't want to be in the market and won't be spending the billions needed to make T-Mobile a real competitor even if the FCC is successful in preventing AT&T from acquiring its assets.

The result is that the US is constrained by weak networks that can either boast coverage or speed, while even their top speeds pale in comparison to what carriers in other affluent nations offer, often for much less. Sanford Bernstein analyst Robin Bienenstock noted that a primary reason why US networks are so pathetic is because the American government doesn't regulate how carriers build their networks as European nations do, providing the example of rules mandating a minimum number of base stations that, if not achieved, will result in the carriers losing their spectrum allocations.

"Let's take California and Spain as an example, " Bienenstock wrote. "Telefonica has some 33,000 base stations in Spain (yes, miserable, economically imploding Spain). Conveniently, California is a similar size, has a similar topography, and has very similar population density. In California, AT&T has just over 6,000 base stations. The spectrum allocation per pop in these two operators (TEF in Spain and AT&T in California) is remarkably similar. A similar analysis looking at New Jersey and Massachusetts vs the Netherlands shows similar results.

"Why are European networks so much denser than American networks? In large part the answer lies (again) in regulation. In Europe, the spectrum auctions of last decade came with 'use it or lose it clauses' that obliged operators to build a minimum of base stations or face sanctions from fines to loss of spectrum. The result is clear to any American visiting Europe… and more frustratingly obvious to any European visiting the States.”