Despite claims by the four biggest U.S. wireless carriers that each one has the best nationwide network, the latest performance data gathered by testing firm RootMetrics shows that are all good and getting better.
"This a great time for consumers. Network providers are really trying hard so that consumers ultimately benefit. You're not going to go wrong with any one of them," said Julie Dey, vice president of RootMetrics, in an interview.
The competition between all four has been tight for years, but came into special focus in the last two months as Verizon, then T-Mobile and Sprint started running separate national ads that show tiny colorful balls running down a track with a narrator asserting each carrier's network superiority.
In the latest comprehensive national RootMetrics testing -- for the second half of 2015 -- released today, Verizon dominated by finishing first in all six performance categories, tying with AT&T only for texting performance. The six categories were overall performance, network reliability, network speed, data performance, call performance and text performance.
Even though Verizon did well on each major national category, the overall performance rating it achieved -- 94.5 out of 100 -- wasn't too far out of line with the other three carriers. AT&T finished second at 91.3; Sprint finished third at 86 and T-Mobile finished fourth at 80.9.
"Our results show that the race is pretty tight overall," Dey added. "It doesn't mean second, third and fourth place are bad."
By comparison, there is a "lot more competition at the metro level," where RootMetrics tested all four networks in 125 major metropolitan areas, Dey said. Verizon won 597 first-place finishes in those areas over the various performance tests, followed by AT&T (424), Sprint (212) and T-Mobile (209).
In those metro areas, Verizon won the most total awards, but Sprint was strong on call performance and T-Mobile was strong on network speed and reliability. "AT&T has been a strong number 2 for a long time and is holding that position," Dey said.
RootMetrics has posted a complete rundown of all 125 markets for its testing in the second half of 2015. In one example, the Washington metro area, all four carriers were neck-and-neck in overall performance with Verizon finishing on top (97.4), followed closely by T-Mobile (96.3), then Sprint (95.3) and AT&T (95).
As with the national results, AT&T won on text performance in Washington, but T-Mobile won on network speed and data performance. Sprint tied for first with Verizon on both call performance and network reliability.
RootMetrics performed 3.8 million tests in the second half of 2015 to reach its findings, simultaneously testing actual phones on all four carriers. The tests were conducted inside more than 6,000 buildings as well as outside of buildings and on streets, including inside moving vehicles that were driven nearly 240,000 miles, including in rural areas. A video atop the RootMetrics home page shows how testers work.
About those national TV ads with the balls running down a track: Verizon hit first with an ad in December that started with the words: "A better network as explained by colorful balls."
In January, T-Mobile hit back with its own ad and a strongly worded press release that said Verizon had ignored how T-Mobile's LTE network growth had doubled in the last year. Sprint followed with its own ad touting its faster download speeds on the Sprint Plus network.
The data from RootMetrics cited in the first ad from Verizon was actually from the first half of 2015, not the second half, Dey said. In both halves of 2015, Verizon did well, however.
RootMetrics is not paid by any carrier to perform its tests but does provide syndicated reports to any carrier or business that requests them, Dey said. In addition, RootMetrics will sell licensing rights to any business wishing to refer in promotions to its findings. Verizon paid a licensing fee to RootMetrics for the first ad with balls rolling down a track, Dey said.
The latest ads have elicited some humor, but to some extent have left consumers confused about which carrier is really the best for any particular customer. That determination is a hard one to make, especially when one customer may live and work in a city where all the carriers are pretty much tied.
"We try and help clarify the noise" from the advertising, Dey said. "The race is so competitive now."