Report: The Fastest 4G and 3G Wireless Networks in America

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As SNL so masterfully parodied, TV commercials for wireless carriers are usually a mess of vague technical jargon, meaningless graphs and annoying spokespeople. But who actually has the fastest wireless network?

The editors at PCWorld decided to find out. They ventured to multiple spots in 13 different cities to test various carriers’ 3G and 4G wireless speeds.

(MORE: Ask Techland: What’s the Deal with 4G?)

The big winner in the 4G category: AT&T, with an average download speed of 9.12 Mbps, ahead of Verizon’s 7.35-Mbps average. If you’re a content creator — i.e., if you are constantly uploading Instagram photos — you might want to go with Verizon, who had the highest average 4G upload speed of 5.86 Mbps.

As for 3G, T-Mobile proved the best bet, with an average download speed of 3.84 Mbps. This report also contains a helpful reminder about 3G-versus-4G marketing:

T-Mobile’s wireless services don’t fit neatly into the 3G and 4G categories that we used in our study. The carrier considers any T-Mobile phone that uses the HSPA+14.4 technology or higher to be a 4G phone. Whether or not HSPA+ is a true 4G technology is a murky subject that continues to spark debate within the wireless industry.

To steer clear of that controversy, we chose to classify T-Mobile’s wireless services by how well they matched up with competing services in the marketplace. For instance, the data transfer speeds we recorded when testing T-Mobile’s advanced HSPA+42 (named for its theoretical top speed of 42 mbps) service compared well with those for the 4G services of the other carriers, so we treated it as competing directly with those services. We used a new T-Mobile HSPA+42 phone, the HTC Amaze, in match-ups against the late-model 4G phones of the other carriers.

We took the same approach with T-Mobile HSPA+21 service, which compared well with the 3G services of the other carriers, putting it head-to-head against those 3G services.

PCWorld reports that 3G speeds went up over the last year almost across the board (except for Sprint). And when you consider its relatively low prices and plan flexibility, T-Mobile really stands out as the best value:

The results of our tests suggest that T-Mobile isn’t just the “low-cost leader,” either; its data service rivals those of AT&T and Verizon. The fact is that many (though not all) consumers can save money with a T-Mobile plan–and get good data service, too.

“The big winner here is T-Mobile,” says Sanford Bernstein’s [Craig] Moffett. “If you can get past the ‘4G versus faux-G’ hurdle, T-Mobile’s network offers very good value for the money.”

The loser was Sprint, whose “3G and 4G services performed worse than any other carrier,” says PCWorld. And while AT&T did reign supreme when it came to 4G LTE download speeds, it’s important to remember it’s only available in 31 cities compared to Verizon’s 203.

The study was conducted in five indoor and five outdoor spots in the 13 chosen cities using phones that each carrier thought would provide the best service.

3G and 4G Wireless Speed Showdown: Which Networks Are Fastest? [PCWorld]