AT&T Outperforms Rivals in 3G Network Tests

AT&T’s much maligned 3G network has undergone a drastic makeover and now ranks first in a 13-city test of wireless networks by PCWorld.

This is a complete turnaround for the company from last spring, when AT&T registered the lowest average download speeds among wireless carriers in the same test, prompting widespread complaints from data-intensive iPhone users in particular.

AT&T has been widely criticized for slow 3G download speeds and dropped calls, especially in large cities such as New York City and San Francisco. The problem was exacerbated by the popularity of the iPhone and othersmartphones. The situation recently prompted FCC officials to worry aloud about whether Apple's upcoming iPad device, which will also be able to access AT&T's 3G network, could lead to further congestion.

3G stands for the "3rd Generation" and refers to the cellular voice and data technology used by all of the major carriers. It will be supplanted by 4G networks, which promise true-broadband speeds on mobile devices.

On a mission

Last year, AT&T set out to boost its network performance. It installed hundreds of new and improved cell towers in cities across the country.

Those efforts have apparently paid off: In the latest test, 3G download speeds on the network were 84 percent better than its numbers last year, and 67 percent faster on average than its competitors – Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

Last spring, AT&T posted an average download speed of 818 kilobits per second (kbps) across 13 cities. In tests conducted by PCWorld in December 2009 and January 2010, AT&T's average download speed increased to 1410 kbps, which is comparable to a basic DSL Internet connection.

In New York City, AT&T's download speeds were three times faster than last spring, and in San Francisco, it was 40 percent faster.

AT&T's network reliability is improved as well. Last spring, PCWorld testers were able to obtain a usable broadband connection only 68 percent of the time. In the latest tests, the success rate was 94 percent.

The competition

PCWorld concluded that the performance of Sprint's network was nearly identical to last year, while Verizon's download speeds were about 8 percent slower in the latest test.

This could indicate that Sprint is upgrading its network capacity fast enough to meet demand, while Verizon may be having trouble keeping up, according to PCWorld.

T-Mobile's 3G network, tested by PCWorld for the first time this year, "supported download and upload speeds that were competitive with Sprint's and Verizon's in most of" the test cities, PCWorld said.

For the detailed report, click here.