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Tech Arguments 2012

AT&T vs. Verizon Wireless: 4G-LTE coverage

Carriers obscure reality in 4G/LTE wireless service pitches

By , Network World
December 03, 2012 07:09 AM ET

Network World - If ever there was a "phony war" in mobility, this is it.

The two carriers are locked in an advertising war over who has the "most 4G" coverage, implying that "most coverage" is or ought to be for consumers the critical reason to choose one carrier or the other.

Read Network World's other tech arguments.

The reason it's all phony: the vast majority of mobile subscribers, most of the time, use their cell phones mainly in one relatively small area around their home or possibly two areas, around home and work, and the route between them. Most of the time, a "mobile" user is one who moves within a relatively small area.

Even "mobile professionals" rarely travel extensively, frequently, and randomly all over the country or even over a large region.

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But both carriers' TV ads obscure this reality. For example, one AT&T commercial consists of nearly 30 seconds of listening to the monotonous guitar hammering of "Memory Lane" by Eddy Current Suppression Ring and watching a young man, equipped with an AT&T "4G" smartphone, show up in about 40 locations, many if not all in different states. At the end, the voice-over says: "AT&T. The nation's largest 4G network, covering 2,000 more 4G cities than Verizon."

Watching just the ad, one might conclude that people, or at least those younger than the age of 30, do nothing except travel from state to state to state with the sole purpose of taking pictures with their smartphone, making calls, texting, and surfing the Web. [see "The 4G ad wars: Evaluating AT&T and Verizon Wireless"]

AT&T claims it has the "largest 4G" network. Verizon Wireless claims it was the "most 4G LTE." Who's right?

The answer is: they both are, depending on how you define "4G." But both claims are irrelevant to choosing a specific carrier for 4G/LTE coverage. [For a more detailed study, see also, "Who has the most 4G coverage?"]

For AT&T, and T-Mobile, a 4G network can be one that's based on the HSPA+ or LTE standards. HSPA+, specifically the 21Mbps and 42Mbps flavors, can deliver very good performance, comparable or even surpassing LTE performance in some locations. T-Mobile has been especially aggressive in continually upgrading its HSPA+ network, most recently in both of these high-speed flavors. A series of independent tests in 2012 showed T-Mobile was able to consistently deliver 5Mbps or more in many areas.

AT&T has HSPA+ deployed in more areas than anyone else. So it can claim to have "the most 4G."

Verizon Wireless has instead focused not on upgrading its 3G network, but deploying LTE. It currently claims to have LTE coverage in about 440 locations. There's no doubt that today it offers the "most" LTE coverage - offering LTE connectivity in more locations -- of any of the top four carriers.

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