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FCC wants to know your mobile broadband speed

TJ Luoma
TJ Luoma|@tjluoma|March 15, 2010 4:30 PM

You may remember that Verizon started running ads a while ago showing AT&T's anemic 3G coverage map. AT&T responded by saying "Our coverage includes 97% of the country!" In the small print on Verizon's ads they make it clear that AT&T does have coverage outside of 3G. In the small print on AT&T's ads they make it clear 3G isn't available everywhere.

What kind of difference does 3G really make? For American wireless users, the FCC is interested in knowing how fast your mobile broadband really is. The agency has released a free iPhone app, made by Ookla, who also made the free Speedtest.net Speed Test app for iPhone (there is also an Android version).

In case you're concerned about your personal information ending up in the servers of the Feds, note the app disclaimer: "Results may be pooled to analyze the quality and coverage of mobile broadband connections across the United States as part of a larger effort by the FCC to identify areas with insufficient or nonexistent access to broadband." More details can be found on the FCC's page here.

I downloaded the app and ran three sets of tests: on Wi-Fi (connected to DSL), on 3G, and on Edge. I ran each set three time: i.e. 3 times on Wi-Fi, 3 times on 3G, and 3 times on Edge, and then averaged the results to try to offset any temporary network glitches that would throw off the results. I also made sure I was using the same server for each test. (You can either let it select the best server based on your location or choose one manually from a list.)

Read on for the results...

This is the first time that I've purposefully disabled 3G on my iPhone 3GS (go to Preferences > General > Network) and Edge is painfully slow. In fact, while on Edge I had to re-run the test numerous times just to get 3 usable datapoints, because sometimes the test simply never completed. After the test results were in, I emailed myself a copy of the CSV report.

The results aren't pretty, especially if you are someone who lives in an area without 3G coverage from AT&T.

Here is a chart made of my results from the average of the three tests (and please note that, as shown in the screenshot, I was in a "5 bars" area, which should give AT&T the most favorable results possible):

Update: There's some confusion here due to the way that the app exports data. The numbers below are correct but the units which were originally shown were not.

Network Download
Higher is better
Higher is better
Lower is better
Wi-Fi 4,371 kbps 612 kbps 741 ms
3G 1960 kbps 310 kbps 1,054 ms
Edge 64.3 kpbs 54 kbps 4,936 ms

There is more information about this quality test available at Broadband.gov.

AT&T also released an app called Mark the Spot to simplify reporting of trouble spots, which is a nice gesture. I hope that there will be some noticeable improvement in frequently reported areas. When I look at the chart above of the Edge speeds, I am reminded that AT&T didn't claim that Verizon was wrong, they claimed Verizon was misleading by making people think there was no coverage outside of 3G areas. AT&T wants to show you this data coverage map. but if you want to get a 3G map from AT&T... well, they give you a list instead. There used to be a checkbox (as shown here in my Flickr feed) to show AT&T's 3G/Mobile broadband coverage.

That checkbox option no longer exists. In fact, I couldn't find any way to get a map from AT&T showing me where the 3G coverage is and where it isn't.

Gee... I wonder why.

Update: You can find the 3G coverage area if you look a specific address and then "zoom out". For example see here. Thanks to Brian Allen and jwkpiano for reminding me how to get at it. Still, it seems like they could have easily put the same chart on the nationwide map, doesn't it?

So: what kind of speeds are you getting from AT&T? Download the app and let us know your 3G and Edge speeds.