If ever there was a "phony war" in mobility, this is it.
The two carriers are locked in an advertising war over who has the "most 4G" coverage, implying that "most coverage" is or ought to be for consumers the critical reason to choose one carrier or the other.
The reason it's all phony: the vast majority of mobile subscribers, most of the time, use their cell phones mainly in one relatively small area around their home or possibly two areas, around home and work, and the route between them. Most of the time, a "mobile" user is one who moves within a relatively small area.
Even "mobile professionals" rarely travel extensively, frequently, and randomly all over the country or even over a large region.
But both carriers' TV ads obscure this reality. For example, one AT&T commercial consists of nearly 30 seconds of listening to the monotonous guitar hammering of "Memory Lane" by Eddy Current Suppression Ring and watching a young man, equipped with an AT&T "4G" smartphone, show up in about 40 locations, many if not all in different states. At the end, the voice-over says: "AT&T. The nation's largest 4G network, covering 2,000 more 4G cities than Verizon."
Watching just the ad, one might conclude that people, or at least those younger than the age of 30, do nothing except travel from state to state to state with the sole purpose of taking pictures with their smartphone, making calls, texting, and surfing the Web. [see "The 4G ad wars: Evaluating AT&T and Verizon Wireless"]
AT&T claims it has the "largest 4G" network. Verizon Wireless claims it was the "most 4G LTE." Who's right?
The answer is: they both are, depending on how you define "4G." But both claims are irrelevant to choosing a specific carrier for 4G/LTE coverage.
For AT&T, and T-Mobile, a 4G network can be one that's based on the HSPA+ or LTE standards. HSPA+, specifically the 21Mbps and 42Mbps flavours, can deliver very good performance, comparable or even surpassing LTE performance in some locations. T-Mobile has been especially aggressive in continually upgrading its HSPA+ network, most recently in both of these high-speed flavors. A series of independent tests in 2012 showed T-Mobile was able to consistently deliver 5Mbps or more in many areas.
AT&T has HSPA+ deployed in more areas than anyone else. So it can claim to have "the most 4G."
Verizon Wireless has instead focused not on upgrading its 3G network, but deploying LTE. It currently claims to have LTE coverage in about 440 locations. There's no doubt that today it offers the "most" LTE coverage - offering LTE connectivity in more locations -- of any of the top four carriers.
In one example of the carrier's TV ad campaign, a handful of mobile users in a "focus group" are shown simplified charts which depict Verizon Wireless having, by far, the "most" 4G LTE coverage. The focus group asks them, "Based on this chart, who would you choose?" Eventually, they all agree that they'd choose Verizon. The voice-over, as the words "It's an easy choice" appear on screen: "It doesn't matter how you present it. Verizon. More 4G LTE coverage than all other networks combined."
But the ad never makes clear what the subscribers are actually choosing. Or why offering LTE connectivity in more locations makes Verizon an "easy choice" for a particular subscriber living in a particular place.
AT&T also argues that Verizon Wireless subscribers who lose LTE connectivity fall back to the carrier's 3G network, based on the EVDO-Rev A standard, with data speeds much less than what AT&T's HSPA+ network typically will deliver. And this is true, though it can be counter-argued that as Verizon Wireless' LTE coverage continues to expand, that becomes less and less likely.
Yet none of this actually matters to most subscribers. For example, Verizon Wireless announced in November 2012 that it was expanding its LTE network in the Lake of the Ozarks region, a sparsely populated tourist mecca in central Missouri. Somewhat more than 3 million tourists visit the region yearly, according to Wikipedia, which is a fair-sized number.
But it's only roughly 1/100th of the estimated 2011 U.S. population of 311,000,000. In other words, 308,000,000 people don't care that Verizon Wireless has "the most LTE" around the Lake of the Ozarks, because they don't live, work, or visit there. And the fact that Verizon Wireless is offering LTE in Lake of the Ozarks will not cause any of those 308 million people to make the "easy choice" of Verizon Wireless over AT&T as their LTE carrier.
The questions facing a potential LTE subscriber are first whether a given carrier offers the service where the subscriber lives and works, and in some cases regularly travels; and second, what kind of performance range is promised, and what is actually delivered.
In a growing number of major urban markets, AT&T and Verizon already offer mature LTE networks - networks that blanket nearly all of a given geographic area. Twelve months from now, both Sprint and T-Mobile will be offering LTE service in many of those same big markets, as part of their own network build-outs.
T-Mobile is betting that its unlimited data plans and solid HSPA+ data speeds will keep customers satisfied as it begins deploying in 2012 the first LTE-Advanced network, which will have a peak data rate of up to 1Gbps for a user who is walking or standing still.
Subscribers can use carrier and third-party tools to check coverage, sometimes to the level of a city block, and to check performance, usually in the form of average data speeds for downloading and sometimes for uploading. One example is RootMetrics, which tests wireless performance in 75 markets every six months. Its most recent "Need for Speed" report, for the first half of 2012, is online, and it offers tools and mobile apps to drill down into the test results. In June 2012, PC Magazine published its own wireless network test results for 30 U.S. cities.
The battle of the most LTE is a phony conflict by the mobile phone carriers. It only serves to deflect subscribers from the real issues.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.