Which U.S. Wireless Carrier Has the Best Network?

By Daniel B. Kline Markets Fool.com

Verizon (NYSE: VZ) has a spent a lot of time and money telling consumers it has the best wireless network, whileSprint(NYSE: S) has based its recent ads on the idea that all four major carriers offer networks that are virtually interchangeable.

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Sprint even hired the former Verizon pitchman, who for years asked, "Can you hear me now?" in ads touting Verizon's network quality. In his Sprint ads, Marcarell attempts to make the point that having a better network means less now. He cites Sprint's own analysis of data from Nielsen, which shows that in the top 106 metropolitan markets in the United States, Sprint beats T-Mobile (NASDAQ: TMUS) when it comes to reliability and comes within 1% of Verizon and AT&T (NYSE: T).

It's fair for Sprint to say that all networks have improved -- that's backed up by numerous reports -- but its analysis looks at a broad, but still select set of data. A better judge of where each of the four major U.S. carriers stands might be using OpenSignal's just-released State of Mobile Networks Report. This study uses data collected from regular consumer smartphones and recorded under conditions of normal usage, and in the latest edition, 4,599,231,167 data points were collected from 169,683 users between October 1 and December 31 2016.

That report, which T-Mobile touts in a recent press release, shows that the wireless network world has shifted, and Verizon no longer sits alone at the top. The results, however, may not be what Sprint or AT&T want to hear now.

Paul Marcarell, who used to work for Verizon saying, "Can you hear me now," now works for Sprint. Image source: Sprint.

What does the study show?

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Essentially, the February 2017 OpenSignal report shows a tie for top network between longtime leader Verizon and T-Mobile. Each won or tied for first place in four categories, while Sprint and AT&T were shut out. Verizon and T-Mobile tied for the top spot in both 4G download speeds and overall download speeds. Verizon took first place in "Latency: 4G" and "Availability: 4G," while T-Mobile won for "Latency 3G" and "Availability: 3G."

"The LTE speed race between T-Mobile and Verizon has long been a close one, but in our last U.S. report T-Mobile held the edge," according to OpenSignal. "That narrow lead, however, disappeared in our latest round of testings. We measured average LTE download speed on T-Mobile at 16.7 Mbps and on Verizon at 16.9 Mbps, results close enough to produce a statistical tie."

It's fair to say based on this data that Verizon and T-Mobile tie for first, with each having an edge over the other in certain areas. In addition, it's worth pointing out that AT&T, which has generally been considered a better network by the public (something the company has used to justify being more expensive than T-Mobile and Sprint) is not in the top tier. However, OpenSignal did have something nice to say about every carrier (even Sprint).

"In the last six months, all four operators saw significant improvements in their 4G availability scores," according to the report. "Sprint, however, experienced the biggest boost of nearly 7 percentage points. Sprint is still in last place in our availability rankings, but it's definitely improving quickly."

Image source: OpenSignal.

Are all networks pretty much the same?

Sprint really wants customers to believe that all networks are pretty much equal. Looking at the graphics in the OpenSignal report, which shows how each category broke down, we can see that's simply not true. Verizon and T-Mobile clearly have the best networks, while AT&T comes in third, followed by Sprint.

The differences don't seem that large, and it might be fair for Sprint to say that for most people it has a "good enough" network. If, however, a consumer wants the best network, he or she should pick Verizon or T-Mobile. That's very good news for the Un-carrier since it can claim to have a top-tier network while offering unlimited data plans and cheaper prices than its rivals.

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Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends T-Mobile US and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.