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

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The new iPhone 4S works fastest on AT&T's network
If you want to stick with the iPhone, AT&T's existing 3G network bests the competition when it comes to the new iPhone 4S. That's according to tests performed by independent testing company Metrico Wireless. "The AT&T iPhone 4S outperforms its Verizon and Sprint counterparts in data download and upload speeds," Metrico found. "Moreover, the AT&T iPhone 4S outperforms the iPhone 4 in download speeds by a considerable margin."

Editors hate it when a story twists and turns, but we're talking wireless here, which never has a straight-line narrative. Although AT&T has improved its data service, its voice service still lags, Metrico found, although the gap wasn't as large as I would have expected. Of course you can't cruise the Web and talk at the same time on Verizon's CDMA network, which is allowed on AT&T's GSM network.

3G service is getting faster
RootMetrics was frank in admitting that it set the bar rather low when it defined 4G as a download speed of 3Mbps or better. With that definition in mind, the various carriers' 3G networks count as 4G. And with that looser definition of 4G, RootMetrics says AT&T's 3G network delivered 4G speeds in 16 of the 27 tested markets: "AT&T's data speeds, moreover, progressively improved from the start of our study at the end of March 2011 to the time of this report. It's not a perfect increase, but the general trend line is clear: Average download and upload speeds, as well as maximum download and upload speeds, have all increased."

In the first seven months of the tests, AT&T's most advanced smartphone could access an HSPA+14.4 3G network. In these markets, with an HSPA+14.4 smartphone, speeds ranged from 1.5Mbps to 2.1Mbps. In New York City, measured during the first week of June, RootMetrics was able to test for the first time with a smartphone capable of accessing an HSPA+21 3G network. From that point on, AT&T delivered speeds ranging from a low of 2.3Mbps in Pittsburgh to a high of 4.3Mbps in Dallas. (T-Mobile rolled out the even faster HSPA+42 3G service in October, too late to be tested by RootMetrics. And AT&T's version of 4G LTE rolled out in a few markets recently, also too late to test.)

That brings up another important point: Just because a network is capable of delivering a certain level of performance doesn't mean that your smartphone is compatible with it. In fact, there are very few smartphones that work at HSPA+ 21 3G speeds (or T-Mobile's HSPA+42 3G network), and it's not always easy to know which smartphone works with various network flavors. Often, says RootMetrics vice president Julie Dey, the only way to tell is to read the detailed specs on a carrier's ­website. You also need to remember that just because a city has LTE service doesn't mean your neighborhood or the area around your workplace has it. If you want to see how your city scored, check out the report.

There's one final twist in this story: If AT&T's proposed acquisition of T-Mobile USA is approved, competitive pressure will ebb. Let's hope the feds stick to their guns and kill it.

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This article, "Shocker: AT&T finally improves its 3G network," was originally published by Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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