Two years ago, AT&T began its deployment of 4G LTE in earnest. Over the last year, 4G LTE service has become available in several areas that I have access to. Because of that, I decided to pick up a device from AT&T and try it out for two months, and see how I like AT&T’s mobile broadband service.
The mobile network operator: AT&T
AT&T Mobility (as it is known today) was formed in 2004 as a merger between AT&T Wireless Services and Cingular Wireless. AT&T started out as a series of regional network operators in the mid-90s. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, two major super-regional giants emerged by 2004: AT&T Wireless Services (who pioneered Digital One Voice free roaming and pushed for interoperable SMS), and Cingular Wireless (who pioneered rollover minutes). In 2007, SBC acquired AT&T Long Lines (formerly AT&T Corporation and holder of the AT&T trademark) and BellSouth and renamed itself AT&T. Cingular Wireless also renamed itself at this time.
AT&T runs the largest network utilizing 3GPP standards (GSM, UMTS with HSPA, LTE) in the United States. Patches of the country retain some CDMA2000 legacy systems from various acquisitions, but they are being converted to UMTS and LTE.
This review will be only about the HSPA and LTE services, though.
The equipment used for the review
For this test, I used a Samsung Galaxy S III. This was used with my desktop computer running Windows 7, my MacBook Pro running Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion”, my PC laptop running Ubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS, my Samsung Galaxy S II from T-Mobile, my [[Review:Samsung_Galaxy_Tab_10.1|Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1]], and my HP TouchPad. The speed test results come from my Samsung Galaxy S II with all other devices disconnected from the hotspot.
I’ve done five speed tests on both LTE and HSPA. Additionally, I have used the mobile broadband service extensively over two months. The first month was all LTE, while the second month was all HSPA.
Signal strength: -91 dBm RSRP (approximately 4 out of 5 bars)
Average latency: 65.8 ms
Average downlink: 10.08 Mbps
Average uplink: 9.37 Mbps
Real world experience with LTE has generally been quite pleasant. I was able to hold long group conversations with fifteen people on Skype (without video) while browsing the web and downloading documents. Video calls through Google Hangouts worked quite well with seven people. Google Maps worked quite well over the LTE data connection as well. Multimedia-rich websites loaded as quickly as basic ones did. Netflix and Revision3 worked quite well over the network and I enjoyed watching HD Netflix shows.
Conclusion: Raw speeds were on par with expectations. AT&T has done a good job in beefing up LTE in the areas that matter.
Signal strength: -65 dBm (approximately 5 out of 5 bars)
Average latency: 164.6 ms
Average downlink: 4.10 Mbps
Average uplink: 1.10 Mbps
Real world experience with HSPA has been a hit-or-miss experience. While signal strength was excellent, the quality of service varied wildly. Multimedia-rich websites took longer to load. While sites like YouTube were fairly usable, higher quality video settings caused stuttering. Live streams were out of the question, as well as HD video. Skype worked somewhat, but the number of people in a sustainable call dropped in half. Group video calls were usable, but the quality was dramatically reduced.
Conclusion: HSPA holds up well for usage, but there are plenty of bottlenecks to make it less useful than it could be. Signal strength is good, making the problem entirely capacity-based. Unless you are truly unable to afford an LTE-enabled device, I’d recommend getting one. That said, you’ll live with HSPA.
AT&T is doing a great job with its 4G LTE service, considering that it is only in its infancy. It works quite well as a daily driver for all the things I usually have to do in a day, and I could live off of it for a month as long as I was careful about my data usage. Quality of service was superb and surpasses my fixed (landline/wireline) high speed internet connection provided by my cable company. If AT&T keeps this up across the whole country, it will have a stellar service worth paying for. It’s also clear that HSPA is a useful fallback to LTE. AT&T’s claims that HSPA and LTE are a better combination than Verizon’s EV-DO and LTE combination are validated, but AT&T has been slower at deploying LTE. You are far more likely to experience HSPA than you will LTE.
I would recommend AT&T for mobile broadband, provided that HSPA and LTE services are available.