Today our drivers leave on their tenth annual journey testing America's Fastest Mobile Networks. They'll drive through 30 US cities and six rural regions to compare AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon service.
We've been talking a lot about 5G this year, but the fact is that the vast majority of people over the next year will be using the carriers' 4G LTE networks. Statista predicts that only 2 million 5G phones will be sold in 2019 worldwide, compared to 262 million North American smartphone users, so 4G network quality is still an important metric in 2019.
We drive-test the networks because we think it's important to compare them in the same place, at the same time, using the same device. We use a field test version of Ookla's Speedtest software, which runs tests every two minutes.
This year, we're testing on the Samsung Galaxy S10. Its Qualcomm X24 modem is the best LTE chipset available today, so it's best able to take advantage of the latest network capabilities. The X24 supports seven-carrier aggregation with 4x4 MIMO on up to five carriers. No US network goes that far, so we know we'll be able to pick up everything the carriers can throw at us.
With Samsung and Apple taking the vast majority of phone sales in the US, we wanted to work with the most popular device with the best possible connectivity. Samsung's Qualcomm modem supports higher data rates than Apple's Intel modem, and Apple seems to acknowledge the superiority. Apple recently settled with Qualcomm and agreed to use its products in the future, while Intel has abandoned consumer modem development for the upcoming 5G era.
Our drivers stop in about a dozen places in each of their test cities, and take somewhat meandering routes between them to check rural coverage. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram. If you have a place you'd like our drivers to test, see, or eat, tell us and we'll tweet a photo from there.
Between May 7 to June 1, we'll be visiting Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, LA, Las Vegas, Miami, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Raleigh, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tucson, Washington D.C., and points in between.
We've seen huge changes in wireless networks since we started testing in 2010. You've felt them, tooâ€”they've enabled Snapchat, Instagram, mobile Netflix, Spotify, and dozens of other applications. This chart from our 2017 report shows how speeds have shot up:
Average speeds like these are also proxies for capacity, and for minimum speeds, both of which we try to track. People may not be able to easily notice if they're getting 50Mbps or 100Mbps on a device, but if we see high speeds, that means the network can handle more people doing streaming video at once without seeing their speeds crash through the dreaded "deprioritization."
Knowing even more traffic is coming, the carriers have kept up with the upgrades, and we'll be testing them.
AT&T's 5G E is the most prominent new change. "5G E" is really gigabit LTE, with four-carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO and 256QAM encoding. It isn't 5G, but it's cropping up on millions of people's status bars, and AT&T says that it's a distinct improvement over its 4G network. Those improvements rippled through the AT&T network starting last fall, and I'm excited to see if they've really moved the needle.
Sprint's chairman Marcelo Claure has been tweeting out massive download speeds accomplished through Sprint's upgrades to "massive MIMO" base stations from Nokia. These upgrades are a requirement for its upcoming 5G network, so we'll be scoping out those 4G speeds, especially in Sprint's first nine 5G cities, all of which we're visiting this year.
T-Mobile's challenge is coverage, and it will have a story to tell this year around its 600MHz network. We've directed our drivers to take somewhat meandering paths between our major cities, checking out the reach and range of T-Mobile's newer, low-band spectrum.
And what of Verizon? The nation's No. 1 carrier, which has won our Fastest Mobile Network award for the past several years, tends to keep its upgrades close to the vest and not give a lot of details on how it's improving its network. That's going to make our results even more interesting.
There are a lot of other network testers out there, and I respect most of them, but I also think we have our own special advantages. Ookla Speedtest, OpenSignal, and Nielsen all use crowdsourcing for their test results. That gets you very broad geographic coverage and many different kinds of devices, but doesn't let you compare networks with the same device in the same location, opening up the possibility that different device mixes or different rural/urban balances across carriers could affect the results. RootMetrics and GWS both do drive-testing, but they aren't as transparent about their routes as we are, and may not be using devices as new as ours.
Keep an eye on our travels over social media. We'll deliver our full results on June 20, and this summer, we're headed back to do the same thing in Canada.