AT&T fastest mobile network in the US, but US only ranks 38th worldwide

AT&T was named "Best US Network" by Global Wireless Solutions, but the US fell to 38th in a ranking of mobile networks worldwide, according to Ookla.

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AT&T was named the fastest network in the US in the 2019 Nationwide Test of Mobile Networks by Global Wireless Solutions on Wednesday, finding that AT&T has the fastest download speeds, data reliability, video streaming and voice call accessibility and retainability, though Verizon outperformed AT&T on upload speeds, while T-Mobile leads on voice quality. 

The survey "includes results from 501 markets in all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, representing 94% of Americans," though GWS also balances that data with subscriber sentiment to determine who operates the best network, as "the importance of each metric is weighted based on feedback from consumers across the US."

SEE: Mini-glossary: 5G terms you should know (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Certainly, AT&T has been investing heavily in their infrastructure, with Ookla also ruling in July that AT&T had the fastest network in the US, though RootMetrics and OpenSignal named Verizon as the winner the same month. 

Every mobile network operator is, naturally, jockeying to be first, and the old adage of "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics," applies here. The differing methodologies will inevitably produce different results, though these are likely a far sight better than firms that only measure consumer sentiment, rather than quantifiable performance data.

Shouldn't it be a trifle embarrassing for mobile network operators to breathlessly repeat these results of being the fastest in the US, when Ookla's Speedtest Global Index ranks the US 38th for mobile connection speeds globally? For context, the US placed one below Lebanon, and one above Montenegro. 

That's not to say that there are not other surprise underperformances in Ookla's report, which found that mobile speeds worldwide increased 21.4% overall from July 2017 to July 2019. Mobile experiences are faster, globally, though this is not distributed evenly. Presently, Germany is 42nd, with the UK at 50th. Japan is 53rd, though their placement makes sense, as 5G services will not begin to roll out in Japan until 2020.

For comparison, South Korea—which was not in the top 10 one year ago—rode the 5G wave to first place, with a 165.9% year-over-year increase, according to the report, recording average download speeds of 97.44 Mbps. In the first month of availability in South Korea, there were 260,000 5G subscribers, while 5G availability and subscription is still spotty in the US. Average download speed stateside is 34.76 Mbps.

Blaming the discrepancy on land mass is a non-starter—certainly, South Korea is not a physically large country, at 38,623 mi², putting it below the top 100. The United States is fourth overall, at 3,677,649 mi². Canada, which is the second-largest by land mass, ranks sixth for mobile download speeds at 60.72 Mbps, while sixth-largest Australia is second-fastest, at 63.34 Mbps. China, the third-largest country, is 35th, at 36.34 Mbps.

So, what's the answer to the mobile speed problem?

5G, while fast, only goes so far—literally. The reliance on millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G deployments by US mobile network operators makes early deployments challenging to use, as mmWave connections are inherently line-of-sight. Tests of the small number of early 5G mmWave networks by sister site CNET surfaced a number of performance problems, with phones reverting to 4G LTE often.

Continued investment into 4G LTE technology is vital to ensure that the baseline coverage available to general consumers—not just lucky early adopters in markets where it makes business sense to deploy the first 5G networks—provides equitable access to consumers around the country. Investment in standards such as LTE Advanced (marketed by AT&T as "5G Evolution" despite not being a 5G standard) is what put AT&T in first place, according to the GWS OneScore results. 

The US will need much, much more of that, in addition to 5G, in order to crack Ookla's Top 10.

For more on 5G, check out "Moto Mod brings 5G support to older Moto Z2 Force phones" and "Huawei starting 6G research in Canada, where it faces prospect of 5G ban" on TechRepublic.

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