Last week, AT&T proudly crowned itself as “the nation’s fastest wireless network,” buoyed by speed tests from Ookla and its misleadingly named 5G E — i.e., LTE — network. But there’s just one problem: as Ookla has taken the time to point out in a blog post, AT&T’s claim isn’t nearly as resounding of a victory as the company has declared.
Now, it is true that AT&T did have the fastest overall mean mobile broadband speeds in America in Q1 2019. But taken as a whole for the quarter, AT&T’s average download speed was 34.65 Mbps — only marginally better than T-Mobile’s 34.11 Mbps average speeds, or Verizon’s 33.07 Mbps.
It’s part of an upward trend for AT&T, which has spent the last year with dramatically slower speeds than competitors T-Mobile and Verizon, for a very simple reason: the company was far slower to adopt the newer LTE technologies (things like MIMO — multiple antennas arrays — and carrier aggregation) than its competitors were. As AT&T’s network caught up, so did its relative speed tests, to the point where things are now once again neck and neck, as seen in Ookla’s chart.
Compare that with the chart AT&T released last week, though, charting weekly speeds throughout Q1 2019. For most of the quarter, things are still neck and neck, but in the final week, AT&T’s speeds shoot up. Was AT&T’s network suddenly dramatically faster than the competition? As Ookla explains, no.
Instead, the company notes that “In the final week of Q1, we also observed an increase in faster tests taken on AT&T’s network. Upon investigation, we discovered that this correlated with the release of iOS 12.2 and the roll out of AT&T’s 5G E icon.” And as Ookla told The Verge last week, the increased number of speed tests came specifically following the release of iOS 12.2 (which added AT&T’s 5G E icon) and specifically from iPhone XR, XS Max, XS, X, 8, and 8 Plus devices (the phones that now display 5G E service on AT&T).
In other words, iPhone customers on AT&T got the update, saw the new icon, did speed tests to see what kind of speeds they were getting, and that added a whole bunch of new, faster speed test data that juiced AT&T’s numbers for the final week of Q1. And, as Ookla notes, since 70 percent of AT&T’s customers are iPhone users — compared to 49 percent on T-Mobile and 62 percent on Verizon — that bump from iOS users trying to figure out if 5G E was actually faster than the LTE they had the day before (spoiler: it’s not) was even more significant.
So yes, AT&T’s network has been getting better, and is slightly faster as a whole now than its competitors. But it’s not nearly as dramatic of an increase as AT&T’s announcement would suggest, and presumably, once numbers start to normalize again, things will continue to look a bit closer going forward. And no amount of 5G E marketing hype will be able to change that.