The Skinny on U.S. 4G Data Speeds

Cell-TowerI am a statistic freak and I read any and all statistics I can find about the telecom industry. A lot of statistics are interesting but require a lot of heavy lifting to see what is going on beneath the numbers. But I ran across one set of statistics that sums up the problems of wireless 4G data in this country in a few simple numbers.

A company called OpenSignal has an app that people can use to measure the actual download speeds they see on LTE 4G networks. This app is used worldwide and so we can also compare the US to other parts of the world. In 2014 the comparisons were made from readings from 6 million users of the app.

The first interesting statistic is that the US came in 15th in the world in LTE speeds. In 2014 the US average download speed was a paltry 6.5 Mbps across all US downloads using 4G. At the top of the chart was Australia at 24.5 Mbps, Hong Kong at 21 Mbps, Denmark at 20.1 Mbps, Canada at 19.3 Mbps, Sweden at 19.2 Mbps and South Korea at 18.6 Mbps. Speeds drop pretty significantly after that, and for example Japan was at 11.8 Mbps. So beyond all of the hype from AT&T and Verizon touting their network speeds, they have not done a very good job in the US.

But the second statistic is even more telling. The speeds in the US dropped from 9.6 Mbps in 2013 to 6.5 Mbps in 2014. The US was the only country on the list of the top fifteen countries that saw a significant percentage drop from one year to the next. Sweden did have a drop, but they went from 22.1 Mbps to 19.2 Mbps

So what does this all mean? First, the drop in speed can probably best be explained by the fact that so many people in this country are using wireless data. Large amount of users are obviously overwhelming the networks, and as more people use the wireless data networks the speeds drop. Our wireless networks are all based upon the total bandwidth capacity at a given cell site, and so to the extent that more people want data than a cell site is designed for, the speeds drop as the cell site tries to accommodate everybody.

But for the average 4G speed for the whole year to only be 6.5 Mbps there has to be a whole lot more to the story. One might expect Canada to be faster than the US simply because we have a lot more large cities that can put strains on wireless networks. But you wouldn’t expect that to make the Canadian 4G experience three times faster than the US experience. And there are very few places on earth as densely populated as Hong Kong and they have the second fastest 4G networks in the world.

It’s obvious from these numbers that the US wireless carriers are not making the same kinds of investments per customer as other countries are doing. It’s one thing to beef up urban cell sites to 4G, but if those cell sites are too far apart then too many people are trying to use the same site. I would have to guess that our main problem is the number and spacing of cell sites.

But we also have a technology issue and regardless of what the carriers say, there are a lot of places that don’t even have 4G yet. I don’t have to drive more than 2 miles outside my own town to drop to 3G coverage and then only a few more miles past that to be down to 2G. A few weeks ago I was in Carlsbad California, a nice town halfway between LA and San Diego and right on I-5. I couldn’t even find a 2G network there at 5:00 in the evening, probably due to all of the traffic on the interstate.

I hope the FCC looks at these kinds of statistics because they debunk all of the oligopoly hype we get from the wireless carriers. I laugh when people tell me they are getting blazing fast speeds on 4G, because it’s something I look at all of the time when I travel and I have never seen it. When I hear of somebody who claims that they are getting 30 Mbps speeds I know that they must be standing directly under a cell tower at 3:00 in the morning. I like speed, but not quite that much.

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