Verizon and AT&T both saw big dips in network speeds after introducing unlimited plans, according to OpenSignal, but those impacts have largely been mitigated and speeds are improving as the first anniversary of industry-wide adoption of unlimited plans approaches.
In February 2017, Verizon finally made the move to begin offering unlimited data plans, following T-Mobile US’ aggressive promotions in that area. Sprint had maintained at least one unlimited option during the years when they were rare and made improvements to its offering in late 2016. AT&T began offering unlimited data in January 2016, but only to customers who also subscribed to one of its television services; it wasn’t until shortly after Verizon’s announcement that AT&T opened up unlimited data plans to all of its postpaid subscribers.
Although Verizon in particular emphasized the readiness of its network to absorb increased data usage driven by subscribers, OpenSignal — which relies on measurements via a device-based application to provide data for its assessments, across both Android and iOS devices — said that its numbers recorded a significant drop in network speeds starting shortly after AT&T and Verizon started large-scale offerings of unlimited data plans. However, OpenSignal noted, speeds are back on the upswing and Verizon has made particularly swift gains.
“The good news is Ma Bell and Big Red seem to have stanched the bleeding created by unlimited plans,” OpenSignal said. “After six straight months of tracking decreases in LTE speeds, in September speeds for both operators leveled out in our measurements, and in Verizon’s case, speeds started creeping back upward. The bad news is in November, both AT&T and Verizon were still well short of their 4G speed highs established in February. Meanwhile, Sprint and T-Mobile speeds have steadily increased over the same 11-month period. T-Mobile was nearly 3 Mbps ahead of Verizon in our 4G speed metric in November, locking down its lead in the LTE speed race, while Sprint had closed much of the speed gap between itself and AT&T.”
There is strenuous debate within the industry as to whether crowd-sourced, app-based data such as OpenSignal’s, or more controlled and repeatable testing by network engineers such as that conducted by RootMetrics or Global Wireless Services, is a better reflection of true network performance versus customer experience. Drive-testing typically relies on a limited number of the latest Android devices, which can actually take advantage of advanced features such as carrier aggregation and higher modulation schemes deployed by operators. Getting a comprehensive view of carrier customer experience is tricky, however, because of the wide variety of devices, ages of devices, and operating system versions in an operator’s device base — and in the era of unsubsidized devices, device upgrade rates have been quite slow for some carriers, with AT&T reporting its lowest-ever upgrade rates during 2017.
In RootMetrics’ national testing during the first half of 2017, Verizon took the top spot in network speeds, followed by AT&T, with T-Mobile U.S. in third place — but the results of top carriers varied significantly by metro market, where T-Mobile US has focused much of its competitive energy.
In drive-testing of the nation’s highways by Global Wireless Solutions conducted during the summer of 2017, GWS found that AT&T had the fastest network speeds for video streaming at 6.9 Mbps — nearly 33% faster than second-place finisher Verizon. GWS also measured physical resource block utilization rate, or PRB, which “measures the amount of resources allocated to an active user for data tasks in relation to the total amount of network resources available,” according to the benchmarking company. Verizon had the lowest PRB rate among the four carriers, which is an indicator of higher network loading — although its network performance still was maintained in terms of task completion, reliability and speed of uploads.
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