Take Reagan's Advice for Wireless Network Speed: 'Trust, but Verify'

Carl Weinschenk

Ronald Reagan famously counseled folks to "trust, but verify" when it came to dealings with the Soviet Union. We all know how that movie ended.

Another area in which the philosophy is well advised - albeit one in which the failure to do so won't end in a nuclear showdown - is in the speed of wireless networks. The question is simple: Do networks deliver the speeds that they advertise?

PCMag.com went to work on the question. It ran a 21-city test and "found that Verizon's new 4G LTE network is much faster than other mobile Web options, with speeds that often exceed home Internet connections." The story goes into great details (and offers cool pictures) and is broken down by regional winner. The West - along with the Northeast, Southeast and Central regions - was won by Verizon Wireless. Rural America is AT&T country. Needless to say, the overall winner was Verizon. The story offers assessments of those two carriers, along with T-Mobile, Sprint, Cricket and Metro PCS.

A different and not-so-comprehensive test was done this spring by Metrico Wireless. In March, I spoke to Rich McNally, the company's vice president of information products. Metrico tested 4G devices: the Google G2, the Apple Touch 4G and Samsung Galaxy 4G on T-Mobile; the HTC EVO, EVO Shift and Samsung Epic on Sprint's WiMax network; and the Motorola ATRIX and HTC Inspire on AT&T.

Said McNally:

We generally find that there is a lot more variance between devices than the average person probably thinks for things like 3G download speed and page load times. There is a lot of variance pre- and post-launch. We see the same thing in 4G.

The relative merits of the networks will shift fluidly as carriers add cell and backhaul capacity. AT&T's network will certainly benefit if the purchase of T-Mobile closes. There are many other moving parts, and therefore it is unlikely that this data will have a long shelf life.

There is a bigger picture item here as well. Minding the gap between what is advertised and the reality is a constant requirement in telecommunications. It extends from wireless to wired speeds and beyond. For instance, much of the data the FCC uses is based on what companies claim, not what is measured in the field. The difference between the real and what companies say even extends to what is considered broadband coverage. In some cases, carriers are allowed to count an area as having broadband if only a fraction of the homes and businesses actually are served.

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