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Study shows US has slower LTE wireless than 60 other countries

Rob Pegoraro
·Contributing Editor
America’s LTE wireless is a lot slower than many other countries. Source: PXHere
America’s LTE wireless is a lot slower than many other countries. Source: PXHere

You can say a lot of things about the state of LTE wireless broadband around the world, but you definitely can’t describe it as “America first.” A new survey by OpenSignal shows that the U.S. lags other countries in LTE speeds and availability—and is farther behind than it was in OpenSignal’s previous report.

So President Donald Trump probably won’t tweet out these findings. But on the upside, this London firm’s research does show improvement in the States. And things may get better over the next year or so, thanks to two developments unique to America.

Saturation before speed

OpenSignal’s report looks at 50 billion measurements taken by its app running on 3.8 million mobile devices in 77 countries from July 1 through Oct. 1. Those findings prioritize “availability”: How often does a phone get an LTE (Long Term Evolution, also often called 4G) signal?

Even slow LTE downloads—say, 6 megabits per second—beat 3G service that typically can’t get past 3 megabits per second, what old phone-based DSL residential broadband can manage. So OpenSignal’s LTE metric isn’t an unfair one.

On that, the U.S. can take a fair measure of pride in having reached 86.94% availability, good for fifth place after South Korea (96.69%), Japan (94.11%), Norway (88.66%), and Hong Kong (87.23%).

Availability doesn’t mean coverage—if an area has a lousy LTE signal but phone users know that and avoid it, the coverage gap won’t show up in this metric. But it’s not divorced from geography either, and the U.S. doing this well when it’s vastly larger than the top four countries is worth noting.

But in the last such OpenSignal report, the U.S. ranked fourth. Then as now, our closest neighbors were a good deal behind: Canada had 81.1% availability and Mexico had 69% availability, compared to 79.52% and 73.5% in the current data.

Downloads trending up, just not as much here

American exceptionalism, however, takes a beating in OpenSignal’s findings about LTE download speeds. They have the U.S. in 61st place, at 13.98 Mbps, far below the top three of Singapore (46.64 Mbps), South Korea (45.85 Mbps) and Norway (42.03 Mbps).

That’s also worse than Canada’s 29.79 Mbps and Mexico’s 22.03 Mbps—and it’s slightly slower than OpenSignal’s prior finding for U.S. LTE downloads, 14.99 Mbps.

In an earlier, U.S.-only study, OpenSignal found slower speeds at the two largest carriers, AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ), which it suggested were the fault of both carriers’ unlimited-data plans encouraging more intensive phone use.

(Verizon’s media division, Oath, includes Yahoo Finance.)

You shouldn’t only take OpenSignal’s word in these matters. Another site that tracks wireless-network performance through apps on phones, Ookla’s Speedtest, found notably better U.S. results in its first-half 2017 report released in September: Average downloads hit 22.69 Mbps, a 19.2% increase from the same period a year earlier.

“Our results do tend to be a bit more conservative,” OpenSignal lead analyst Kevin Fitchard wrote in an e-mail. He cited his employer’s practice of measuring connection speeds from sometimes-distant servers that, he said, “represent the common destinations for web surfing in a country rather than the closest point of presence.”

That subsidiary of the publishing firm Ziff Davis also tracked upload speeds, a critical metric to anybody who’s waited to share a video clip. They hit 8.51 Mbps, just a 4% upgrade from a year earlier.

Speedtest has yet to post 2017 data for Canada and Mexico, but its figures from 2016 had their LTE downloads (25.21 Mbps for Canada, 16.19 Mbps for Mexico) bracketing America’s 19.27 Mbps at the time.

What’s next for the U.S.?

American wireless users, however, have reason for a little optimism thanks to some factors distinct to our market.

One is AT&T’s buildout of FirstNet, a long-planned network for priority use by first responders but which will also allow the company to expand its own coverage along the way.

“That will improve AT&T’s network substantially,” said analyst Roger Entner in a phone interview Tuesday.

The other is the decreasing odds of Sprint (S) and T-Mobile (TMUS) merging. That corporate coupling—once doomed under President Obama’s regulators, then seemingly a sure thing under the Trump administration—would have incurred massive transition costs.

In a June 2017 note, Moody’s analysts Mark Stodden and John Diaz suggested this “massive engineering effort” would require taking on $10 billion in debt. Should months of flirting by these firms end in continued separate existences, they’ll have to focus on their own networks.

“T-Mobile has already articulated quite well what they’re going to do,” Entner said, noting its announced goal to expand LTE coverage to 321 million Americans by the end of the year. “The big question is, what will Sprint do?”

If, he said, the company takes advantage of continued independence to invest in its own service in the way T-Mobile did after AT&T gave up trying to buy the firm (with help from the sizable breakup fee AT&T paid to T-Mo), we could see a brighter picture for U.S. customers next year.

And if not? We can comfort ourselves with the odds that the U.S. can lead the world in rolling out 5G wireless, even if it won’t do anything for our smartphones for another two years.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.