2021 US Nationwide Test
of Mobile Networks
Global Wireless Solutions completes annual “consumer experience” testing in nearly 500 markets representing 92% of the US population.
How it’s calculated: GWS Best Network OneScore takes into account voice, packet data, video, coverage, and reliability metrics, and combines them into a single score that highlights the overall performance of each network. The testing includes results from 498 markets in all 50 states, representing 92% of Americans. In addition, the importance of each metric is weighted based on feedback from consumers across the U.S.; feedback that focuses on those elements of network performance that matter most to Americans. By combining the engineering-led test results with consumer research, GWS has created what has been considered as the most comprehensive evaluation in the industry that highlights the performance of each major network in the U.S.
Key Test Facts
Nearly 8 million individual controlled tests were conducted by GWS wireless network specialists in all 50 states
498 markets were tested including all US metropolitan areas as well as many other cities and towns – representing 92% of US population
Nearly 1 million miles were driven while testing
GWS collection and evaluation of data was conducted using specialized network test equipment, Samsung Galaxy mobile devices, GWS’ Mobistat data reporting platform, and big data analytics
Findings from the study also show:
Network Capacity Stress Tests
T-Mobile experienced the highest average throughputs during GWS’ network stress tests:
Download – Verizon is the fastest for small download tasks like receiving app-related content or loading web pages while AT&T is the fastest for large download tasks like receiving photos and videos.
Upload – Verizon has the fastest uploads for small and large tasks like posting social media content, videos, and photos.
AT&T has the highest success rate across the nation in completing data tasks.
AT&T has the best overall video streaming experience in terms of highest video quality and least amount of rebuffering, and tied with Verizon for quickest loading time.
Best Video Quality
Lowest Video Rebuffering
Quickest Video Loading
1st AT&T and Verizon (tie)
AT&T had the highest voice accessibility (i.e., successful call initiations), the best voice retainability (i.e. lowest number of dropped calls), and the best voice quality while Verizon had the lowest call setup time.
Best Voice Quality
Lowest Call Setup Time
AT&T and T-Mobile both increased their service coverage since our previous nationwide testing in 2021. However, Verizon still has the most coverage in the areas tested.
Let’s Talk 5G
Because GWS’ annual nationwide benchmarking program is based on scientific testing, engineering analysis, and big data analytics, we can take a deeper dive into the networks. Clearly, as we’ve indicated in our annual reports from recent years, all networks are improving nationwide – availability, reliability, speed, quality of service, etc. are all trending up. Operators have been making significant investments in new technologies, upgrading their networks, and deploying new features. Today, on the front of everyone’s mind is 5G and what the operators are doing in relation to this game changing wireless technology.
2021 was the first full year that operators focused on deploying and introducing 5G. As a result of our ability to uniquely “scope” the networks, we observed the following in terms of 5G performance and where operators currently stand in their long-term rollout and infrastructure changeover.
How reliable is 5G?
GWS test results show that AT&T has the most reliable 5G nationwide network, completing 99.5% of the data transfer tasks performed on 5G networks. Verizon finished second at 98.8% and T-Mobile third at 97.3%.
How often is 5G available?
Top 10 Markets: When considering the top 10 US markets (population totaling approximately 87 million), we found that AT&T’s 5G network was actively available 66% of the time (“actively” means phone has connected to the operator’s 5G network and is ready to send or receive data), versus 45% for T-Mobile and 36% for Verizon.
All Markets: Over the 498 markets measured, our testing found that T-Mobile had some 5G coverage (i.e., 5G was actively available in 5% or more of the market footprint) in 429 markets, versus 296 for AT&T and 175 for Verizon.
When looking at the U.S. as a whole (i.e., all 498 markets combined), the total amount of time 5G was actively available for AT&T was 45%, versus 35% for T-Mobile, and 22% for Verizon.
Bottom Line: T-Mobile’s 5G was actively available in smaller concentrations across more markets than the other operators; whereas AT&T’s 5G was actively available in much larger concentrations but mostly within markets with higher populations.
Everyone’s favorite 5G question – how fast?
As evidenced by each operator’s approach to availability, nationwide deployment and integration of 5G into existing networks is managed differently by each operator and is still a work in progress in 2021. At this point, while all operators are offering 5G speeds that can easily meet the requirements of today’s data driven world, T-Mobile had the fastest average 5G throughput speed (95 Mbps) during our network capacity stress tests with Verizon at 80 Mbps and AT&T at 58 Mbps.
Which operator has the Best 5G Overall Onescore?
When looking at GWS’ 5G test results (i.e., taking into account reliability, data tasks using different file sizes, and video testing) and factoring in consumer feedback, AT&T had the Best 5G OneScore followed by Verizon then T-Mobile.
Which operator has the Best 5G Video OneScore?
When taking into account the test results based on video quality, least amount of buffering, quickest time to load, and video success rate along with customer feedback, AT&T had the Best 5G Video OneScore followed by Verizon then T-Mobile.
Behind the curtain:
5G network observations
Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) – more bang for the buck
With 5G coverage increasing across operators so too is the use of DSS (sharing channels between 5G and LTE). We noticed that Verizon has deployed DSS in nearly half of the markets tested (229 out of 498 markets). And within those markets, DSS was used in 23% of the 5G Verizon tasks undertaken by our network testing specialists. AT&T DSS was noticed in 22 markets (and within those markets it was used for 5% of the 5G tasks).
Standalone 5G (5GSA) – the end game
Currently most operators are focused on deploying 5G within their current infrastructure; comingling or sharing resources to some extent with their existing LTE based networks, systems, and processes (otherwise referred to as 5G non-standalone - NSA). This approach, in part, is due to the massive capital investment and resources required in building out nationwide and bringing to life this new generation of wireless technology. However, to fully maximize the speed, capacity, and reliability gains achievable by 5G, operators must eventually convert their networks to stand alone 5G. To this end, we observed that T-Mobile is the only operator to date that has begun this long migration (most notably in the low to mid bands - 600MHz and 2500MHz). In particular, T-Mobile 5GSA appeared in 3% of the tests we completed across the U.S. Put another way, T-Mobile 5G was active 35% of the time across the U.S.; and out of that percentage, 5GSA was seen 10% of the time.
mmWave – little footprints of lightning fast service
Verizon has the highest percentage of mmWave spectrum deployed nationwide at roughly 2% of the tasks completed vs. the others at less than half a percent. While operators are in the early stages of 5G small cell commercial deployment, the performance of what is in operation is remarkable. Verizon’s mmWave sites included up to 8 channel aggregation and produced throughputs that sometimes exceeded 2.5Gbps.
498 markets in total. Orange pins represent top 25 metropolitan markets in terms of population.
As a result, by combining engineering-level testing with the results from current nationwide-level polling, GWS’ OneScore creates the most balanced picture of the mobile experience that consumers care most about today. Further, this combination of controlled, scientific testing (conducted with test equipment in each market across the U.S.) along with in-depth nationwide consumer research results in the industry’s most comprehensive, realistic evaluation of network performance.
Network performance is often tested by looking only at factors like throughput or signal quality. This provides a good high-level overview of the state of a wireless network. But what does that mean to consumers using those networks? Would they rather be able to make a high quality call, or do they only care about fast data speeds? To truly understand if networks are providing measurable benefits, it’s crucial to understand consumer expectations and behavior when using their mobile devices.
More specifically, our consumer survey includes questions asking respondents to rank the importance of different tasks they perform on their mobile device, as well as the importance of different aspects of network performance. Our nationwide network test results are then weighted according to how consumers prioritize what’s important to them, and evaluated in eleven different network performance areas related to voice, data, network reliability and network coverage.
GWS collection and evaluation of data was performed between March and July 2021 using specialized test equipment, Samsung Galaxy mobile devices, GWS’ Mobistat reporting system, and big data analytics. The resulting setup enables the collection of a wide array of key network and device information, from radio frequency to packet and other network engineering data (including layers 1, 2 and 3; Ethereal IP and IMS Signalling).
Our testing platform also enables us to perform detailed voice quality score and call testing using standard algorithms such as perceptual objective listening quality analysis; all of which helps determine network voice quality and performance.
Using this platform, GWS network testing specialists were able to run tests and collect millions of measurements from multiple networks simultaneously (this also eliminates time and location as variables; something that cannot be done with other forms of network testing such as crowd source data collection). Over the last 25 years, we have benchmarked mobile networks of all shapes and sizes across the globe with all types of technology and features; and along the way we’ve invested millions of dollars and extensive resources in developing our collection and evaluation process. It’s a process that eliminates random, anomalous data found in other forms of network testing and it’s a process that emphasizes accuracy and “real world” consumer experience.
GWS Consumer Research
All 2021 survey figures are from a study that was commissioned by GWS and conducted by Toluna. Total sample size was 5,000 adults. The survey was undertaken online in June 2021. The figures have been weighted and are representative of Americans (ages 18 and older).
The following are a few select highlights from the consumer survey results on mobile phone usage and network expectations. As mentioned previously, GWS’ annual consumer survey results are taken into consideration and used to determine weighting when analyzing network test results in the determination of Best Network OneScore.
Voice Calling – still top feature
For the fourth year in a row, consumers consider making and receiving phone calls as the single, most important function on their phone.
Stay Remote or Attend In-Person – life after restrictions
As restrictions are lifted, people are more likely to continue doctor appointments via telehealth than other remote/online activities related to school, business, religious services, and socializing.
5G – a gamer’s delight
5G drives increased smartphone gaming. Three-quarters of consumers who have access to 5G on their smartphone play more than 1 hour of games per day on their phone vs. just over half of consumers with 4G phones.
Selecting an Operator – consumers are consistent
Similar to last year, consumers consider the following top three factors ranked in order when selecting a new operator or staying with their current: coverage, reliability, network speed.
5G – it’s catching on with consumers
Consumer awareness and enthusiasm for 5G is high. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said 5G coverage was available where they lived. And about three-quarters are excited at what 5G means for innovation.
Mobile App Usage – a day in the life of a consumer
GWS’ new opt-in panel provided key insights into how consumers spent their time accessing certain types of apps during the pandemic. Click here to see the report.
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