America's mobile networks are getting significantly faster, according to a report from Ookla, which makes the popular Speedtest app.
In the first half of 2019, Ookla said the average download speed on U.S. mobile networks reached 33.88 megabits per second, 24% faster than the same period in 2018. (That’s fast enough to download all 14 songs on Billie Eilish's new album When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? in about 23 seconds.) Upload speeds didn't see as much improvement, averaging just 9.75 Mbps, a 13% increase from last year.
Ookla also calculated overall speed ratings for each of the four major carriers. The calculations were based on the 11.6 million speed tests performed by consumers who used Ookla's apps during the first half of 2019. The proprietary ratings account for download and upload speeds with a greater emphasis on the average experience of most consumers.
In the head-to-head competition, AT&T, with a speed score of 32.91, had the fastest network among the four major wireless carriers. T-Mobile came in second with a score of 30.94 and Verizon was third with 29.45. Sprint's 28.15 speed score put the carrier in fourth place. That's a big change from a year ago, when T-Mobile came in first and this year's winner, AT&T, placed third.
All four carriers have spent billions of dollars improving their 4G LTE networks, as the testing revealed. But the industry is now racing to deploy next generation 5G technology that could increase average speeds by 10 to 40 times. But it's early days for the new tech. Verizon has started offering mobile 5G service in parts of just four cities so far, T-Mobile is in six areas, and Sprint debuted 5G in four cities in May. AT&T is offering 5G for business customers only in parts of 20 cities. Ookla said it had some 5G test results from its users, but not enough yet to produce reliable results.
AT&T achieved the win, improving its score by 45% from last year, by rolling out its carrier aggregation feature to more subscribers. Phones on AT&T's network can use the feature to combine as many as five different airwave spectrum bands together at once for a single download. The use of multiple bands provides more capacity and speeds the download. "Over the past year, AT&T has managed to leapfrog the competition to produce the fastest download speeds across the country," Ookla wrote in its report.
Looking at the state level, consumers in Rhode Island got the fastest average download speed in the country, reaching 49.71 Mbps. Minnesota ranked second and the District of Columbia was third. At the other end of the spectrum, Wyoming consumers saw the slowest speeds, averaging only 19.96 Mbps. Mississippi was second-slowest, followed by Iowa.
Ookla's Speedtest app results were gathered from 4 million devices. The crowdsourcing method is similar to how rivals like OpenSignal calculate speed rankings, but quite different from Rootmetrics, a testing firm that employs professional testers who drive around the country and measure network performance. Rootmetrics in January said Verizon was the the best mobile network carrier for overall quality.
In a statement, T-Mobile emphasized that "across all categories and is neck-and-neck with the top performer every time." The carrier's chief technology officer, Neville Ray, added: "T-Mobile’s network is the only one to provide meaningful performance in every category, going toe-to-toe with the big guys while they fluctuate wildly from one measure to the next."
AT&T took a victory lap in a statement posted online–while touting its controversial decision to label some advanced 4G networking features as 5G. "These results reflect the billions of dollars of technology investments we have spent on our network creating great customer experiences," AT&T noted. "Our 5G Evolution foundation translates into a noticeably faster experience in areas where the network technologies are available – up to 2x faster than standard AT&T LTE."
Verizon made no apologies for its speed ranking and pointed to its top finish in a variety of previous rankings. ""We continue to distance ourselves from the other wireless service providers as we win coverage, reliability and speed tests over and over throughout the years," Verizon said in a statement. "This ongoing performance leadership sets Verizon's business and consumer customers up for great network experiences in 4G LTE and as we continue our 5G rollout."