Verizon Wireless is America’s most heavily used mobile-phone carrier, with 93 million monthly subscribers (second-place AT&T (T) has 71 million). The telecom has continued to attract more new customers than its biggest rivals in recent quarters with ad campaigns that boast about its network’s speed. The only problem is that Verizon’s network can’t always handle the traffic load, and in some cases the subscriber connections have slowed dramatically.
In contrast, AT&T’s long-term evolution (LTE) network usually delivers applications, Web pages, and other data the fastest, with average download speeds 30 percent faster than Verizon’s, according to speed tests by wireless industry researcher RootMetrics and PC Magazine. While Verizon’s average speed remains well ahead of T-Mobile’s (TMUS) and Sprint’s (S), this year marks the first time since Verizon brought out its LTE service two and a half years ago that it’s been beaten by another company. “I’m not sure we can say we are vindicated, but we are pleased with our progress, though we have more to do,” says John Donovan, AT&T’s senior executive vice president of technology.
Verizon and AT&T have sunk billions into LTE networks, the most recent iteration of the systems known as 4G. When operating at peak performance, LTE can begin to stream a high-definition video in about 30 seconds without dropped frames or other interruptions. In the latest round of their battle for market share, Verizon introduced its LTE network in December 2010, about nine months before AT&T’s, and saw a big surge in traffic.
Now, with AT&T’s data speeds doubled in some cities since last year, Verizon is trying to manage its congested LTE infrastructure while working on an even faster network. “Congestion typically cuts speed by 25 percent. It’s a byproduct of their own success,” says RootMetrics President Bill Moore, adding that a big part of what makes newer networks faster is lighter data loads. Verizon offers LTE service in about 500 U.S. cities and towns, while AT&T’s is in about 300.
Mike Haberman, vice president of network operations for Verizon Wireless, says it doesn’t matter how fast a wireless network is if users can’t connect to it. The RootMetrics review, which tested LTE speeds of the top four carriers in 77 cities, found that the likelihood of successfully getting on Verizon’s LTE network was 93 percent, compared with 82 percent for AT&T. “Speed isn’t sustainable, coverage is, and that’s the difference,” says Haberman. “We are a lot more consistent, even as we have more of a load on our systems.” AT&T’s Donovan says the difference in traffic volume isn’t significant. “We have a substantial amount of customers and traffic on LTE. Our network isn’t lightly loaded,” he says.
Verizon laid the groundwork for the next phase of its network upgrade last year, when it bought advanced wireless services (AWS) airwaves, an unused slice of the telecommunications spectrum, from a group of cable companies led by Comcast (CMCSA). Haberman says the company will roll out a sweeping upgrade of its existing LTE network, with speeds up to twice as fast as those of its current system, in New York and a few other cities before yearend. “Whatever speed they claim,” he says of AT&T’s service relative to Verizon’s, “in three months it will be dramatically different.” Verizon says it can upgrade its infrastructure while keeping wireless capital expenditures at $8.9 billion—comparable to its 2012 capital spending.
The new network won’t transform Verizon’s service overnight, though. Most customers’ current phones won’t benefit from the AWS infrastructure; the company just began in May to sell the first Nokia (NOK) and Samsung Electronics (005930:KS) phones that’ll be able to access the faster network. And as long as Verizon has tens of millions more customers to manage, AT&T will have a leg up when it comes to network speed in many markets, says Michael Cote, president of wireless researcher Cote Collaborative. “You are always going to find issues of capacity constraint in cities like New York and San Francisco,” Cote says. “There is no silver bullet.”