AT&T isn't nearly as bad as you think

att network fix

Here's a shocker in case you've been stuck under a rock since 2009: AT&T's network is really good now.

AT&T's 4G-LTE network has been rated faster than Verizon's network by four independent studies. Its coverage area is growing rapidly, and it will be available to just as many Americans as Verizon's 4G network by the end of next year.

That's a far cry from where AT&T (T) was just a few years ago. After failing to anticipate how much bandwidth iPhone users would suck up with app downloads, Web browsing and video streaming, AT&T saw its 3G network became practically unusable in major cities such as New York and San Francisco.

AT&T has consistently been rated the worst network by Consumer Reports readers since the iPhone launched six years ago. The network has ranked dead last in the magazine's customer satisfaction survey for three straight years.

But perception and reality are diverging.

RootMetrics, Consumer Reports, PCMag, and PCWorld/TechHive have all measured AT&T's 4G-LTE network as the nation's fastest. In some cases, those independent studies have shown AT&T reaching download speeds of up to 19 Megabits per second (that's blazingly fast). AT&T was consistently between 4 and 6 Mbps faster than Verizon (VZ) and T-Mobile's (TMUS) 4G networks, and was found to double or triple Sprint's (S) speeds.

Speed isn't the only factor in measuring the quality of a network. Latency, signal strength and coverage area can greatly affect customer satisfaction, and the four studies noted that Verizon's network remains consistently more reliable than AT&T in call connections and 4G availability. Last year's J.D. Power and Associates survey ranked Verizon tops in network quality.

"Our 4G-LTE network is plenty fast, but it's about more than just speed," said Tom Pica, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. "It's not just a sprint, it's a decathlon."

But AT&T is quickly improving other aspects of its network too.

Related story: Why 4G may lead to bigger smartphone bills

Ma Bell's 4G-LTE network has expanded to 326 markets, covering more than 200 million Americans. That's still smaller than Verizon's just-about-completed 4G network, which serves 500 markets and 300 million people, but AT&T is playing an impressive game of catch-up. AT&T expects that its 4G network will be 90% complete by the end of the year and will essentially match Verizon's coverage by the end of 2014.

"Over the past two to three years, we've invested significantly in our network," said Kris Rinne, AT&T's senior vice president of network technologies. "We've seen a closing of the gap."

Before AT&T customers get too excited -- or non-AT&T customers think about jumping ship -- there's a catch: AT&T's second-place status in its coverage map might be related to its first-place speed ranking.

Verizon turned on its 4G network almost a full year before AT&T did, giving it a year's head start to transition customers to the speedier technology. As more customers switch to 4G, the slower the network becomes. The same will undoubtedly happen to AT&T's network.

"AT&T has to be just tickled pink about all these studies, but this could be a short-term phenomenon," said Ken Rehbehn, a telecommunications analyst at Yankee Group.

Rehbehn notes it's not quite as simple as "more users, slower network." Different speeds also have to do with network plumbing, policy decisions, a company's investment in backhaul, the number of cell sites it has, network capacity, and how effective a company is at deploying new technologies like small cells. Still, network congestion is a major factor that AT&T will likely soon face.

The problem with measuring network quality is that it's akin to hitting a moving target. Wireless companies are constantly upgrading their technology and infrastructure, adding capacity and increasing speeds.

By the time that AT&T's network coverage reaches parity with Verizon's, Big Red will have deployed 4G coverage on a new, giant swath of wireless spectrum that, in part, it recently purchased from a consortium of cable companies. That will, in effect, double Verizon's capacity and network speeds.

AT&T may be slightly ahead in the speed battle right now, and the strides the company has made in improving network quality are nothing short of remarkable.

But the war hasn't yet been won.

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