Verizon gets highest marks in RootMetrics’ new network tests, but AT&T keeps its speed crown

Independent network tester RootMetrics on Wednesday released its latest nationwide test results on mobile network performance, reliability and speeds, and the results would indicate that not much has changed since last year: Verizon is the most dependable, but AT&T’s network is faster.

The comprehensive report ranks Verizon Wireless(s vz) highest overall in terms of reliability, awarding it the best scores among the four major operators in categories such as data, call, and text performance; but AT&T(s t) again took the highest marks in its speed index, though just barely.

Root didn’t spell out the average speeds it recorded in its 4.6 million tests in both indoor and outdoor locations. Rather it compiled a Root Score for each carrier, which factors in rote speed as well as more tangible use cases such as the time it takes to download 10 emails and how quickly the device establishes a connection to the network.

RootMetrics index

AT&T scored 88.7 out of 100 in Root’s speed index, just two tenths of a point higher than Verizon, followed by T-Mobile(s tmus) with a score of 74.3 and Sprint(s s) with 65.8. In The reliability index, Verizon scored five points higher than AT&T with a rating of 89.8, but there was also a lot of distance between the two mega-carriers and their smaller competitors. Reliability wise T-Mobile scored a lowly 57.1.

These scores paint a very different picture than the one the carriers have been describing for the last few months. Though it bragged about its speed crown for a while, AT&T has since backed away from that message and now claims it has “the nation’s most reliable network.” Meanwhile T-Mobile recently proclaimed that its network was the fastest in the country “bar none.”

The excesses of marketing aside, there are some reasons for the discrepancies between what Root is tracking and what the carriers are saying. First off, Root’s study is fairly broad thanks to its hybrid drive-testing/crowdsourcing methodology. It collected data from all fifty states and not just within the major metro areas. Verizon and AT&T’s networks are more widespread than T-Mobile’s, which are concentrated in major cities. Also, Root is testing performance across all networks 2G, 3G and 4G. In the case of Sprint, which is still in the middle of its 4G rollout, Root is often factoring in 3G performance where LTE isn’t available.

RootMetrics ranking for overall performance state by state

But Root’s tests were also conducted over six months in latter half of 2013. A lot of network upgrade activity occurred in that timeframe. Verizon launched a new high-speed LTE network in the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) band in December, doubling or tripling its capacity in many major markets. At a press conference this morning, Verizon CTO Nicola Palmer touted what Verizon considered a “Straight A’s” ranking from Root, but she also pointed out that none of Root’s tests were performed on its newest 4G network.

T-Mobile, too, was busy this fall. It doubled the capacity of its LTE network in its largest metro markets, and it’s begun another upgrade process that will double that capacity once again this year. Though T-Mobile scored low in Root’s reliability and speed rankings, evidence of that new network started appearing once you started drilling down into the report’s city-by-city rankings. For instance in New York and San Francisco, T-Mobile beat out both Verizon and AT&T in Root’s speed index, though it still trailed both in reliability rankings.