Sunday, March 14, 2010

AT&T 3G: more of a good thing.. or more of the same?

I received an email from AT&T last Friday, with the subject "Great News - Coverage in San Jose, CA just got better". Apparently they installed a new cell tower a little over a mile from my house, and they wanted to make sure I knew about it. Their timing was uncanny, because I had just missed a call from my wife about fifteen minutes earlier, apparently because I lost signal moving around in my house. (It's a small house!)

Now that I had this great news, I had to perform a test to see just how fast "The nation's fastest 3G network" is in my neighborhood.

I started out while I was waiting in line to check out from the local Orchard Supply store. Half the neighborhood was out taking advantage of the "no sales tax" special, so this was a great spot to run the Speedtest iPhone app, since the new tower was just a few blocks away. As you can see in the chart above, the results weren't all that great. The peak of 1.4 MBPS download was nice, but there was a huge variance - down as low as 60 KBPS. At first I thought it might be unfair to test indoors, even though the entire front of the store is glass and I was only a few feet away. But I actually achieved that peak in the checkout line, and couldn't come close to it again. The worst results actually occurred when I was out of the store.

The lowest part (in the middle) of the chart above shows the results as I rode away (my wife was driving), and the last four results, in the gray rows of the table, show tests that I performed when I was back at home (approximately 1.5 miles away). Look at the chart again, and you'll see I achieved both the best (1.65 MBPS) and worst (25 KBPS) download speeds at home. The time interval between those results was five minutes. The upload test also failed once at home, and once closer to the new tower.

So, to answer the original question, how fast is what AT&T claims as the "nation's fastest 3G network"? In this test of my neighborhood in the heart of Silicon Valley, it averaged just 446KBPS download, and 148 KBPS upload. Though the peaks were higher than in the test I published last year, the average is actually worse. And my wife still gets upset when she calls me on my cell while I am at home, and I miss the call because it went directly into voicemail.


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