Sprint Needs More 4G, Less 3G
The good news for Sprint is that the overall speed of its data service has increased significantly during the past year, about 170 percent, in fact. The bad news is that while Sprint offers its WiMax service in most of our test cities, actually connecting with the WiMax signal using our Sprint 3G/4G modem proved a hit-or-miss proposition. For instance, in San Jose, California, we measured download speeds of below (sometimes well below) 0.5 mbps in 8 of our 20 testing locations, a sure sign that no WiMax service was available in those places.
When the 4G service is unavailable, Sprint devices downshift to the company's 3G CDMA service, which, our laptop-modem tests suggest, may have slowed somewhat over the past year. Average download speeds slowed considerably in New Orleans (-24 percent), Phoenix (-31 percent), and San Diego (-24 percent)--the three cities in our tests where no WiMax is available.
Sprint says no such slowdown has occurred. "The 3G speed results you saw do not match what we see, and what the independent third party testing our network has reported," says Sprint spokesperson Stephanie Vinge-Walsh. "We haven't seen any significant degradation in 3G from last year to this year; our 3G speeds remain in the same range and at the same high dependability levels."
Sprint's 13-city average download speed of roughly 2.1 mbps represents a mix of CDMA and WiMax--3G and 4G--connection speeds. Overall, we recorded throughput speeds of more than 2 mbps in about half of our tests. In the majority of our test cities where WiMax was available, we noted (anecdotally) a roughly 50-50 chance of connecting to the service. There were exceptions: In Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago, the laptop-modem speed results reflected that the 4G network was available throughout the cities, with a few exceptions.
Of its 4G WiMax service, Sprint says users should expect average download speeds of between 3 mbps and 6 mbps, with peaks of more than 10 mbps. Our tests left us skeptical of Sprint's claim. We never saw a speed higher than 7 mbps, and we reached speeds of 6 mbps or more in only 5 of our 260 testing locations. The WiMax network produced a fair number of speeds within the 3-to-6-mbps window, but not consistently.
Sprint's upload speeds also tell the tale of a 4G service with spotty coverage. In many of our testing cities, we saw mainly two kinds of upload speeds: those of 1 mbps and above, suggesting that we had managed to hook into the WiMax service, and those that were below (sometimes well below) 0.4 mbps, suggesting that we had connected to the 3G CDMA service. Overall, Sprint's average upload speed remains stalled in 3G-land, at just 0.6 mbps.
Sprint's CDMA and WiMax networks, combined, produced the worst average latency score in our tests, at 214 milliseconds. Such network delay can begin to degrade the smooth operation of real-time applications like video chatting and VoIP calling.
The same disparities in Sprint's 3G and 4G networks showed up in our smartphone tests. In locations where WiMax coverage was spotty or nonexistent, average download scores were well below the 1-mbps mark. In cities where we could regularly connect with the WiMax network (Boston, Chicago, and New York), we saw download-speed averages of 2 mbps or greater.
Despite its overall speed gains, Sprint's service ranked last in both download speeds and upload speed in this year's laptop-modem tests. Had Sprint's WiMax network been widely available in all of our testing cities, the results would have been much different. The 4G network isn't slow, it's just not in enough places.
"Coverage has always been their Achilles' heel in 4G, and financial problems at [WiMax partner] Clearwire have slowed down their 4G network expansion nearly to a stop," says Sanford C. Bernstein's Moffett. "A year ago, they were first to market; now they're at real risk of falling behind."
The 4G Cometh
An important transition from 3G to 4G is under way and will continue raising the bar for fast mobile broadband. If speeds continue increasing at the rate they have been over the past year, 3G data service (and speeds) will soon become just an unpleasant memory. Our tests show, conclusively, that the 4G wireless service the carriers now offer--if it's available in your neighborhood--is already significantly faster than 3G service.
What will that mean? The 4G service will very likely speed up your consumption of Web-based content, and smooth the operation of services such as streaming video. In fact, 4G speeds are likely to let you do things with your mobile device that you simply couldn't do with a 3G connection, applications such as video chatting, online gaming, and VoIP calling. 4G is the first incarnation of wireless broadband that might finally free people from the desktop, allowing us to manage our online lives whenever and wherever we want.
Next page: How we test mobile network speeds