Shocker: AT&T finally improves its 3G network

The battle between Verizon and AT&T is bearing fruit in the form of faster cellular download speeds

I'm shocked -- shocked! No really, I am. While I've been beating on the wireless carriers for not working hard enough to expand network capacity, there's finally some evidence that they're making progress. Not enough, to be sure, but hey, the bar is low these days, and fair is fair. AT&T, the deserved target of more slings and arrows than Hamlet ever suffered, has substantially ramped up 3G speeds in a number of markets by upgrading to a 3G standard called HSPA+21. That's according to a new report by RootMetrics, an independent company that tested wireless networks in 27 markets between March and October of this year.

AT&T's version of the iPhone 4S also scores higher (in some respects) in a head-to-head analysis of wireless performance by Metrico Wireless. However, if you're thinking of buying that new smartphone for yourself or someone else this holiday season, the choice of networks isn't clear-cut. And while it's good to see network upgrades -- you can thank Apple for partnering with Verizon Wireless, a move that amped up competitive pressure on AT&T -- the fact remains that cellular services are still full of confusing gotchas, as well as misleading claims and counterclaims.

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LTE is faster where available, but no iPhone can use it
Despite AT&T's progress on the 3G front, Verizon's next-generation 4G LTE service is, well, kicking butt, with download speeds that eclipse those of its rivals in major markets across the United States tested by RootMetrics. For the record, the markets with the fastest LTE service are Denver; Portland, Ore.; Minneapolis; San Jose, Calif.; and Dallas.

"The clearest pattern throughout the 27 markets is that Verizon's LTE is fast. Really fast. So much so that Verizon won our RootScore Award for data in 24 out of the 27 markets we tested, losing only in those cities where LTE was not present in a significant way," the report states. However, in the markets it tested where Verizon does not offer LTE service (Buffalo, N.Y.; Virginia Beach, Va.; and Kansas City, Mo.), that carrier's performance was markedly slower -- indeed, it was among the slowest.

If you don't live in one of those slowpoke burgs, it would seem that Verizon is a hands-down choice. But not so fast. LTE is the 4G technology that Verizon is using, and it's not supported by any existing version of the iPhone. I say "existing" because it's likely that at some point, there will be a 4G-capable iPhone, but not yet.

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