Verizon keeps its crown in latest wireless performance report

All of the Big Four U.S. wireless carriers claim to have the best and fastest networks, based on 'independent testing' from a variety of sources. Verizon Wireless has topped RootMetrics' ranking for some time, and it continues to lead that pack.

Sprint TV ad

Verizon Wireless came out on top once again in the results of an independent wireless performance test released today by RootMetrics that encompasses more than 3.8 million data points from across the country. The findings come at a time when both T-Mobile and Sprint have been running television ads designed to mock Verizon. Those ads also suggest T-Mobile and Sprint have the fastest networks, according to "independent testing."

So who's lying? Unlike ads for diet supplements that claim to help you lose enormous amounts of weight in no time at all, carriers don't just make stuff up. Instead, they cherry-pick the data from legitimate sources that makes them look best.

Verizon consistently comes out on top of the extensive tests performed by RootMetrics; T-Mobile often touts flattering results from by Ookla's Speedtest; and Sprint boasts about its network according to Nielsen Mobile Performance data.

An advertising war for wireless customers

This wireless conundrum has been on full display during the last few months, as three of the four major carriers — AT&T sat this one out — waged an advertising war. Following Verizon's victory in last summer's RootMetrics survey, the three carriers all produced ads that look remarkably similar. The TV spots feature colored balls rolling through arcade-like mazes, a reference to RootMetrics' semiannual tests. And the ads, of course, each claim different carriers delivered the fastest network performance. (You can view those ads here, courtesy of AdAge.)

Despite the confusion, the RootMetrics results are worth a look if you're thinking about switching wireless carriers because they're the most extensive and cover a huge swath of the country. "All told, we collected approximately 3.8 million test samples while testing performance while driving, at stationary outdoor locations, and at more than 6,600 indoor locations," according to RootMetrics.

Verizon runs the table ...

In the most recent report, Verizon took top honors in five of the six categories tested by RootMetrics, including overall quality, reliability, network speed, call quality, and data performance. It tied AT&T in the sixth category: text message performance.

Although Verizon is the clear leader, the tests indicate all three of its major rivals — AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile — made notable improvements. AT&T was a close second to Verizon in four of the five categories tested, followed by Sprint and T-Mobile.

... but T-Mobile and Sprint make gains

Don't overlook T-Mobile or Sprint. "This round of testing proved that Sprint and T-Mobile also have the potential to become strong competitors in the coming year," said Julie Dey, vice president of RootMetrics.

T-Mobile, the testing found, does have a very fast network in some areas. But not everywhere. The self-styled "Uncarrier" tends to be speedy in urban areas where it has dense collections of cell towers, and slows significantly down in many ‘burbs and out in the countryside.

"T-Mobile offered fast speeds and strong data reliability in metropolitan markets," according to RootMetrics. "If you primarily use your smartphone in a major metropolitan area, T-Mobile remains a strong choice."

Sprint, meanwhile, continues to make heavy investments in its network, and they're paying off. "Sprint has improved its LTE coverage significantly in metropolitan markets, and Sprint showed a great deal of improvement in our metro area testing," according to RootMetrics. "If Sprint can continue its LTE expansion efforts beyond metro areas, Sprint could close the gap with the other networks in multiple categories at the United States level."

Because performance in different cities varies so widely, it's worth checking out RootMetrics' more granular, city-specific data to see if it includes your home city or town. One more caveat: No matter how well an area rates overall, performance can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. As always, it's a good idea to do your own tests, if possible, by testing out a friend's phone where you live, before making a carrier switch.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

Get the best of CIO ... delivered. Sign up for our FREE email newsletters!