Mobile carriers losing the data upgrade race to Californian demand

12 October 2016 by Steve Blum
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You can get more bits per second from mobile broadband carriers in California, but your odds of getting those faster speeds at any given moment are dropping. That’s what the California Public Utilities Commission’s mobile field testing result are showing. You can read the excellent blog post by commission staffer Rob Osborne here. He shows that mobile broadband speeds are increasing, but sums it up diplomatically: “it’s hard to say, but it appears the likelihood of getting the average speed at a particular location is lower than before”.

The CPUC has been running a regular series of Internet speed tests at more than a thousand specific locations for several years now. Over that time, mobile companies have upgraded their infrastructure and are capable of delivering fast, sometimes really fast, service. But judging from the latest results, either Californians are increasing their consumption of mobile data at an even faster rate, or the consistency of the new technology being deployed is dropping, or both.

Between the tests conducted a year ago and the latest round done this past spring, Verizon’s average speed in California – the highest of the four major carriers – increased from about 14 Mbps to just over 16 Mbps. Sprint stayed even at about 8 Mbps, T-Mobile went from 12 Mbps to 13 Mbps, and AT&T increased from 12 Mbps to just under 14 Mbps.

On the other hand, you have less of a chance of actually getting that kind of performance at any given moment. Rob does a good job of explaining the math and the methodology, but the bottom line is that the speeds you can expect to experience, as opposed to overall average speeds, are dropping: from 4 Mbps to just over 2 Mbps for Verizon, more or less the same range but a bit lower for AT&T and an even steeper drop to 1 Mbps for T-Mobile. Sprint only dropped a little, but its expected speeds are in the sub-2 Mbps range.

Mobile carriers are investing in more and better infrastructure, but judging from the CPUC’s measurements, not quickly enough to keep pace with Californians.