The Best 3G & 4G Cities in America

Dan Jones
LR Mobile Report
Dan Jones, Mobile Editor
10/30/2012



If you're curious about the best and worst cities for cellular connectivity in the U.S., then you've come to the right place.

The lowdown
Seattle-based RootMetrics has provided us with data covering 3G and 4G networks from the top five carriers in the U.S. The data comes from the top 75 urbanized areas in the country, based on results from a downloadable speed test app. For a quick taste of what's to come, here are the fastest cities in the U.S., according to RootMetrics, which averaged the download speeds in a given place for each of the top nationwide carriers and determined an overall ranking for each city:

Table 1: Five Fastest Cities (All Carriers)

Rank City Average Download Speed (Mbit/s)
1 Indianapolis 10.3
2 Orlando, Fla. 9.3
3 Akron, Ohio 9.2
4 San Jose, Calif. 9.1
5 Kansas City, Mo. 8.9
Source: RootMetrics


Table 2: Five Fastest Cities (Top 4 Carriers)
Rank City Average Download Speed (Mbit/s)
1 Orlando, Fla. 11.0
2 Kansas City, Mo. 10.9
3 San Jose, Calif. 10.9
4 San Antonio 10.7
5 Indianapolis 10.3
Source: RootMetrics


Not all 4G is created equal
It should be noted that AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Leap Wireless International Inc. (Nasdaq: LEAP), MetroPCS Inc. (NYSE: PCS), Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) and Verizon Wireless all run some form of 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) network in the U.S.

T-Mobile US Inc. , meanwhile, uses a fast form of 3G technology called High-Speed Packet Access-Plus (HSPA+), which it markets as 4G. AT&T also sells HSPA+ as 4G alongside its younger -- but growing -- LTE network.

T-Mobile is expecting to introduce LTE in key metropolitan areas in 2013.

Not all 4G is created equal. AT&T and Verizon have wider radio channels to deploy LTE technology than the smaller operators do, so those networks tend to be the fastest.

As you'll see, AT&T or T-Mobile's HSPA+ networks can give the 4G networks a run for their money, particularly in the cases of Leap and MetroPCS, because those carriers have much less spectrum -- meaning smaller channels overall -- to deploy 4G LTE in.

Verizon also has a significantly larger 4G LTE footprint than any of its rivals. As of late October 2012, Verizon has 419 LTE markets live, AT&T has 77, Sprint has 32 and MetroPCS has 13 cities and parts of Florida, while Leap just has two cities up.

The methodology
RootMetrics went about the tests like this:

  • RootMetrics visited a number of markets twice in 2012. For the five fastest and five slowest markets for each carrier, they did not average both visits, but rather considered each distinctly. Dates are provided to indicate when in the year a fast or slow test speed was recorded.

  • To determine the overall fastest and slowest cities, the company took each carrier's average speed in a given market and averaged all of them. This measurement does not necessarily say anything about an individual carrier. Carrier A could still be very fast in a "slow" market because all other carriers are slow.

  • The testers have provided two types of maps: One that includes all six carriers tested, and one that includes only results for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. The latter is offered to screen out exceptionally slow speeds from Leap or MetroPCS.

  • Remember that this data incorporates both 3G and 4G carrier networks that offer a wide variety of speeds.

Ready? Here are the results (free registration required):

Dig in to the data and let us know what you think on the boards below.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile





Let's take a look at how the data splits across carriers.
Table 3: AT&T's Fastest Cities
City Top Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
Indianapolis 20.4 July 18 - 24
Cleveland 19.7 Sept. 6 - 15
San Jose, Calif. 19.5 Aug. 17 - 21
San Antonio 18.8 March 19 - 23
Indianapolis 18.6 Feb. 13 - 19
Source: RootMetrics




AT&T has the fastest overall speeds, just edging Verizon out for top downloads.

Table 4: Cricket's Fastest Cities
City Top Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
Philadelphia, PA 0.9 April 8 - April 14
Kansas City, MO 0.9 April 24 - 30
Charleston, SC 0.9 August 17 - 21
Philadelphia, PA 0.9 July 28 - August 3
Dayton, OH 0.8 May 8 - 12
Source: RootMetrics




Leap, which markets itself as Cricket Communications Inc. , has the slowest overall numbers of any carrier but has no 4G LTE network -- aside from two markets, one just launched in Vegas -- to speak of.

Table 5: MetroPCS's Fastest Cities
City Top Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
Dallas 3.4 Aug. 7 - 13
Dallas 3.2 Feb. 21 - 27
Orlando, Fla. 2.9 May 20 - 24
San Francisco 2.6 July 18 - 24
Tampa, Fla. 2.4 Jan. 13 - 19
Source: RootMetrics




MetroPCS gets its fastest numbers in Dallas, one of its oldest LTE markets, launched in September 2010.

Table 6: Sprint's Fastest Cities
City Top Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
San Antonio 6.9 Aug. 7 - 13
Kansas City, Mo. 6.2 Aug. 17 - 23
Atlanta 5.1 Aug. 7 - 13
Orlando, Fla. 3.9 May 20 - 24
Dallas 3.8 Aug. 7 - 13
Source: RootMetrics




Because of its smaller radio channels -- typically 2x5MHz rather than 2x10MHz -- Sprint is getting less juice out its 4G network than either AT&T or Verizon.

Table 7: T-Mobile's Fastest Cities
City Top Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
Atlanta 10.8 Aug. 7 - 13
Seattle 9.7 June 15 - 21
Orlando, Fla. 9.5 May 20 - 24
Mission Viejo, Calif. 9.5 Feb. 21 - 25
San Diego, Calif. 9.4 July 8 - 14
Source: RootMetrics




Note that T-Mobile is getting better performance out of its top 3G HSPA+ cities than Sprint is getting on its 4G cities.

Table 8: Verizon's Fastest Cities
City Top Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
New Orleans 19.7 April 7 - 11
Mission Viejo, Calif. 18.3 Feb. 21 - 25
St. Louis 17.6 Jan. 5 - 11
Kansas City, Mo. 17.5 Aug. 17 - 23
Source: RootMetrics




Verizon, meanwhile, comes very close to AT&T in performance and has a wider LTE footprint.





Table 9: AT&T's Slowest Cities
City Lowest Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
McAllen, Texas 2.4 March 19 - 23
Colorado Springs, Colo. 3.2 Aug. 27 31
Omaha, Neb. 3.2 March 18 - 22
Miami 3.2 Jan. 13 - 19
Springfield, Mass. 3.3 May 20 -24
Source: Root Metrics




AT&T is still getting some decent "slow" results from 3G. Table 10: Cricket's Slowest Cities
City Lowest Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
Denver 0.2 July 18 - 24
Pittsburgh 0.3 Jan. 13 - 18
Las Vegas 0.3 March 13 - 17
El Paso, Texas 0.3 March 18 - 22
Houston 0.3 Jan. 21 - 27
Source: RootMetrics




Cricket's slowest numbers aren't far from its fastest numbers.

Table 11: MetroPCS's Slowest Cities
City Lowest Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
Hartford, Conn. 0.1 May 2 - 6
Toledo, Ohio 0.1 March 24 - 28
Bridgeport, Conn. 0.1 May 2 - 6
New Haven, Conn. 0.2 May 31 - June 4
Springfield, Mass. 0.2 May 20 -24
Source: RootMetrics




Ouch! MetroPCS comes off worst in this section.

Table 12: Sprint's Slowest Cities
City Lowest Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
McAllen, Texas 0.3 March 19 - 23
Dayton, Ohio 0.3 April 24 - 30
Toledo, Ohio 0.4 March 24 - 28
Akron, Ohio 0.4 May 31 - June 4
Allentown, Pa. 0.4 May 20 - 24
Source: RootMetrics




Sprint gets its worst numbers off its older CDMA network.

Table 13: T-Mobile's Slowest Cities
City, State Lowest Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
Tucson, Ariz. 1.2 Feb. 21 -25
Albany, N.Y. 1.8 May 20 - 24
Memphis, Tenn. 1.8 March 24 - 28
New Orleans 1.9 April 8 - 12
San Francisco 1.9 Feb. 13 - 19
Source: RootMetrics




T-Mobile's network shows a wide spread between the best and worst results out of its markets.

Table 14: Verizon's Slowest Cities
City Lowest Download Speed (Mbit/s) 2012 Test Dates
Providence, R.I. 6.1 June 6 -12
Allentown, Pa. 7.3 May 20 - 24
Toledo, Ohio 8.1 March 24 - 28
Tampa, Fla. 8.1 Jan. 13 - 19
Buffalo, N.Y. 8.1 May 2 - 6
Source: RootMetrics




Verizon is the best of the worst thanks to its extensive LTE network.







We've provided the Fastest Cities tables on the first page of this report. When looking at those you'll notice that even with Cricket and MetroPCS taken out and averaging across 3G and 4G networks, the results are similar to the top 4G cities numbers from early this year. (See Top Five 4G LTE Cities in the US.)

Kansas City is still a top 4G city, but Orlando moved upwards in the results by adding carriers like T-Mobile back into the mix.

Now let's look at the slowest cities, as measured by RootMetrics:

Table 15: Five Slowest Cities (All Carriers)
Rank City Average Download Speed (Mbit/s)
1 Buffalo, N.Y. 3.2
2 Springfield, Mass. 3.2
3 McAllen, Texas 3.2
4 Tucson, Ariz. 3.4
5 Worcester, Mass. 3.7
Source: RootMetrics




The LTE networks help to pull up the averages in this category as we saw in the individual results some carriers can have much slower results.

Table 16: Five Slowest Cities (Top 4 Carriers)
Rank City Average Download Speed (Mbit/s)
1 Buffalo, N.Y. 3.8
2 McAllen, Texas 3.9
3 Springfield, Mass. 3.9
4 Tucson, Ariz. 4.1
5 Allentown, Pa. 4.2
Source: RootMetrics




Buffalo, N.Y., is the slowest wireless city surveyed on average. McAllen, Tex., and Springfield, Mass., aren't far behind.

A snapshot of wireless performance in fall 2012
The range of speeds across the cities surveyed shows just what a state of flux the U.S. wireless market is in. From 20.4MBit/s downloads on the latest 4G technology to a 0.1MBit/s crawl on the low-end.

Wireless is a shared medium, so performance can vary depending on how close people are to the tower and how many people are using the network, as well as other factors.

Nonetheless, the numbers make it clear how much difference access to bigger spectrum channels makes for operators. With 2x10MHz channels for LTE in the 700MHz spectrum, AT&T and Verizon can crank out speeds higher than other operators', leaving rivals scrambling for spectrum through mergers and acquisitions.

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