Is T-Mobile’s LTE really the fastest? I’m not so convinced

T-Mobile(s tmus) CEO John Legere and CTO Neville Ray got up on stage at CES on Wednesday and made the claim that with 17.8 Mbps of downlink speed they now run the fastest LTE network in the country. If they had made that statement a few months ago or a year from now, there would have been no doubt in mind that they were right. But today I think they’re engaging in some selective number picking.

T-Mobile’s networks today would beat any other U.S. operator’s network hands down if they traveled backwards in time a few months. Then T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) and AT&T(s t) all had networks of comparable bandwidth, and by virtue of the fact that T-Mobile’s is still relatively unloaded, its customers would have experienced speeds far in excess of what Ma Bell and Big Red could provide.

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 3.07.47 PM

But in the interim Verizon has launched its LTE monster in major markets across the country, doubling or tripling its network capacity and in many markets doubling its potential 4G speeds. There have been no comprehensive speed tests on the new network yet, but initial reports in NYC showed it clocking 80 Mbps. As the network becomes loaded, average speeds will be less, but certainly higher than the 14.3 Mbps T-Mobile is giving Verizon credit for.

Based on the description Ray gave at CES, though, I don’t get the impression T-Mobile sampled any of these new Verizon networks in its analysis of Ookla’s results. Ray did mention Verizon’s new souped-up networks in his talk, but he pointed out that only newer Verizon smartphones could access that new network. Meanwhile, Ray said all T-Mobile LTE phones could support its top speeds.

That’s true. At the end of the year of about 20 percent of Verizon’s smartphone base could access it’s improved networks, but these aren’t insignificant devices – including the iPhone(a aapl) 5s and 5c, the Samsung Galaxy S4, the Motorola(s goog) Droid Maxx, Mini and Ultra – and the list is growing quickly.

Ray’s point that Verizon has left millions of customers with older smartphones in the lurch, though, is a bit disingenuous. T-Mobile’s network has only been live since March. By default all of T-Mobile’s LTE handsets are new. You could make the argument that there are still millions of T-Mobile customers with only year-old HSPA+ handsets that can’t access its new LTE networks, and that those customers are just as screwed as Verizon’s. Ray can’t just ignore Verizon’s massive network upgrade simply because it suits T-Mobile’s marketing purposes.


If you’re looking for speed, you’ll get no argument from me that T-Mobile has one of the fastest networks in the country. In some places and on many devices it probably has the fastest. But if you’re the type of person who absolutely needs to have the fastest connection, you’re likely also the type of person who has the latest and greatest phone. And if that’s the case you’re most likely going to find that fastest connection on a Verizon network. At least you will today.

Over the next year, T-Mobile is deploying an LTE monster of its own — it’s already live in Dallas — and once it’s live all are bets are off. That network will host 40 MHz of spectrum in 22 of the countries 25 largest markets, making it the same size of Verizon’s new LTE beast. Given T-Mobile is much smaller than Verizon, though, it will have far fewer customers vying for that bandwidth. T-Mobile is practically a shoe-in to assume that speed crown.

T-Mobile has set itself up as an anti-carrier, defining itself by what other carriers are not. I applaud its chutzpah, but that attitude has also led it to make carnival barker-like statements such as today’s: We’re fast while those other peckers are just slow! (Legere actually used the word “pecker.”) If T-Mobile wants to ignore the subtleties of today’s networks, that’s fine — everyone else does — but it should at least wait until its arguments are airtight before making them.