Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Gadgetwise Blog: Fastest Network? It All Depends

In a survey of 20 cities, Tech Hive found AT&T to have the fastest LTE service in America. An earlier survey of 77 cities by RootMetrics, a company that measures network performance, got similar rankings, but recorded very different speeds.

But wait a minute: In tests I ran myself, T-Mobile was the fastest by far. Why do we get these contradictory results and what does it mean if you are trying to choose a network?

It’s simple. Unless you are traveling all over the country, it doesn’t matter which service has the best national average. What matters is which has the best service in your neighborhood.

I’ve pointed this out before, but it bears repeating — networks are national but reception is local.

So how do you find out which is the fastest network locally? One way is to check out many of the crowd-sourced coverage maps. Rather than taking a carrier’s word that they have towers nearby, crowd-sourced maps are made by people with apps on their phones that periodically test for a signal. The results are sent back to a company that assembles a map.

Root Metrics is one of those companies. You can check a coverage map for your area and other cities you might regularly travel to as long as you know the ZIP codes.

A company called OpenSignal has a map that makes it easy to compare carrier coverage and includes speed and reliability data. Because it counts on volunteers, the map tends to be most complete along major thoroughfares.

You can also check the site Sensorly, which like OpenSignal tends to be most complete along major roads.

But you still shouldn’t rely on these maps alone. The best thing you can do is download a speed test app for your phone. Then you can test the speed of your existing network in your location. If you can get some friends and neighbors on other networks to do the same you’ll get a good idea of which network is best for you.

A popular speed test app from Ookla is aptly called speedtest.net. It’s available for Apple and Android. You can also find a speed test from Root Metrics, and there are others as well.

When shopping for network, go ahead and think global, but test local.

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