Cellular Data Speeds Much Improved

I’m curious about how many people realize that cellular broadband download speeds have increased dramatically over the last year. I’m not a heavy cellular data user, particularly during the pandemic year when I barely used cellular data outside of the home. But I’ve always run cellular speed tests a few times per year and have definitely noticed faster download speeds.

Following is a comparison of cellular download speeds in the recent first quarter of this year compared to the first quarter of 2019. In both cases, the speeds are national averages reported by Ookla that are based upon millions of cellular speed tests.

2019 2021
AT&T 34.7 Mbps 76.6 Mbps
T-Mobile 34.1 Mbps 82.4 Mbps
Verizon 33.1 Mbps 67.2 Mbps

There are several reasons for the increase in speeds. First, many cell sites were not fully 4G compliant in the first quarter of 2019. The first fully 4G compliant cell site was completed in the winter of 2018. Since then, the carriers have implemented 4G everywhere.

The carriers have also implemented new spectrum bands. They’ve labeled the new spectrum as 5G, but the new spectrum bands are all still using 4G technology. The new spectrum allows cellular customers to spread out into multiple channels. This means that older spectrum bands and the networks are not getting bogged down and overbusy during the heaviest usage times of the day such as during the daily commute.

I also suspect that the pandemic has some role in the difference. During the pandemic the daytime demand for cellular data has been suppressed by far fewer people commuting and spending the day outside the home. A less busy cellular network should translate into faster speeds.

As part of writing this blog I took a speed test on my cellphone in downtown Asheville on AT&T. I got a download speed of 60.5 Mbps, and an upload speed of only 1.8 Mbps.

It’s worth looking at the Ookla article because it shows median broadband speeds by state. Note that median is different than average and median means half the speed tests were slower and half were faster. The medium speeds are significantly lower than the national average, which indicates that there are more fast speed tests than slow ones to drive the average higher.

It also seems likely that urban speeds are much faster than rural speeds for a variety of reasons. That conjecture is somewhat verified by the District of Columbia having the fastest median speeds. The top eight fastest speeds are all on the east coast. The ten slowest states are all at half of the median speeds in D.C. – with the slowest speeds being in Mississippi, Wyoming, West Virginia, Iowa, Vermont, and surprisingly Texas.

I’ve still never figured out why faster cellular data speeds would be important to the average cellular customer. The most data-intensive most people do on cellphones is to watch video, and that only requires a few Mbps of speed. There would be a benefit when updating cellphone software, but I have to imagine that most people do this while on WiFi. I would love for somebody to provide real-life examples of how faster cellular data speeds are making a daily difference.

One thought on “Cellular Data Speeds Much Improved

  1. Just ran a test in my office in downtown Richmond VA for Verizon “5G” service and recorded 58 down and 9 up. (By comparison, I connected to Wifi and recorded 178 down and 23 up). I know for less urbanized areas of the state the speeds will be a fraction and in many cases below 25/3.

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