Latest coverage figures, third-party data indicate AT&T narrowing 4G coverage, performance gaps with Verizon
Recent 4G LTE coverage figures from AT&T, Verizon and an independent third-party industry source reveal that Verizon holds about a 70,000-square-mile 4G coverage advantage nationally—a fraction of the 450,000-square-mile advantage touted by Verizon in communications to public safety for years, and as recently as last month.
Verizon’s web site includes a page stating that its 4G network covers “more than 2.68 million” square miles. Last week, an AT&T blog written by Chris Sambar—AT&T’s executive vice president, technology and operations—stated that AT&T’s 4G coverage area within the United States has expanded to 2.61 million square miles, driven largely by the carrier’s deployment efforts associated with its buildout of FirstNet, the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN).
This difference of about 70,000 square miles in 4G coverage is about 84% less than the “more than 450,000 square mile coverage advantage” cited repeatedly by Verizon representatives during the past two years. The 450,000-square-mile reference was used recently on the Verizon web site in a Feb. 12 press release, which also cited 4G coverage of more than 2.5 million square miles.
Officials for both carriers confirmed to IWCE’s Urgent Communications that the 4G coverage figures represent the coverage for 4G and include coverage provided by roaming partners. Both figures also include coverage in Puerto Rico, where AT&T has its own network and Verizon provides service through roaming agreements.
In light of the recent coverage figures, IWCE’s Urgent Communications has asked numerous times whether Verizon representatives have any basis for the claimed 450,000-square-mile coverage difference, as well as whether Verizon plans to continue using the figure in future company literature and in conversations with first-responder entities. Verizon did not directly respond to the questions but provided the following statement to IWCE’s Urgent Communications yesterday afternoon:
“As we drive innovation in the industry, we are continuously expanding our 4G LTE, fiber and 5G coverage footprints, while offering the best experience for our customers,” according to the Verizon statement.
AT&T’s Sambar also provided a statement to IWCE’s Urgent Communications yesterday on the matter, including some additional detail about the methodology the carrier used in its 4G coverage figure.
“We know how important coverage is to America’s first responders—that’s why we are proud to cover over 99% of the U.S. population and more than 2.61 million U.S. square miles with LTE,” according to Sambar’s statement. “This figure was determined using our on-net LTE coverage, as calculated by competitive third-party Mosaik, plus our LTE roaming coverage area. This provides public safety with an analogous comparison to Verizon’s stated U.S. footprint, which also includes both on-net and roaming figures.
“Despite the misinformation consistently being provided by Verizon, the truth is our total coverage difference is nearly imperceptible. Last year alone, we more than doubled our coverage growth from the previous year and we continue to invest in the network, putting us on target to grow our footprint more than our competitors once again this year.”
During an August interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications, Sambar—serving as AT&T’s senior vice president for the FirstNet program at the time—acknowledged that Verizon likely had a 450,000-square-mile advantage in 4G coverage in 2017 or 2018, but that coverage difference has narrowed dramatically since AT&T began its FirstNet deployment efforts in earnest.
“On the topic of misleading, Verizon keeps quoting that 450,000 square miles [as a coverage advantage],” Sambar said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications conducted during the APCO 2019 event. “We have sent them multiple cease-and-desist letters on that, because they know that’s not true—and if you want to quote me, that’s fine. But they [Verizon representatives] keep saying that, and that is a misleading thing for them to keep saying, so I’m surprised that they keep saying it.”
“It was true, probably two years ago. But it’s not true anymore, and that’s very frustrating.”
As a point of comparison, Verizon’s apparent 70,000-square-mile means that it has about 2.7% more nationwide 4G coverage than AT&T. If Verizon still had a 450,000-square-mile coverage advantage, that would have represented about a 20.2% coverage advantage.
AT&T narrowing the LTE coverage gap with Verizon would represent a significant step in the FirstNet program. Among public-safety agencies that have remained with Verizon rather than switching to FirstNet, the perception that Verizon provides significantly better wireless broadband coverage in their jurisdiction easily is the most-cited reason for the decision, according to numerous sources within the public-safety community.
AT&T has narrowed the 4G coverage gap with Verizon, but AT&T officials acknowledge that Verizon continues to have a coverage edge. Meanwhile, Verizon officials note that the Verizon network continues to dominate third-party tests that measure overall network performance and reliability.
Mike Haberman, Verizon’s vice president of network engineering, said that third-party tests by companies like RootMetrics—a firm that conducts drive tests nationwide every six months to compare wireless carriers’ network performance—are a better measuring stick than self-reported coverage numbers.
“When I look at this, a lot of it is self-reporting—you can put apples and oranges in there,” Haberman said last week during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications, before AT&T identified that it used third-party data to compute its new 4G coverage figures. “For example, you can count Puerto Rico, you can count parts of Mexico—you can move around the numbers a lot.
“When I look at this sort of stuff, I sort of acknowledge fact that companies might not report things out the way they actually are. That’s why, if you’re making claims that you cover more than you did in the past, or you’re doing better, there should be a tangible result at the end of it, right, to show that it’s true?”
Haberman said that carriers’ coverage figures are “not audited,” so third-party tests provide a better indication of the overall network quality from a given carrier. Verizon’s network has emerged as the top wireless service provider in comparisons of the four U.S. nationwide carriers conducted by RootMetrics for several years.
RootMetrics does not measure coverage, but it does include a reliability category that indirectly incorporates coverage, according to Haberman. Verizon again was named as the most reliable network in the most recent RootMetrics report, which covers network performance during the second half of 2019.
“These [coverage figures] are all self-reported—you can change these around a lot by just the stroke of a pen,” Haberman said. “The real point here is that, if there was a dramatic improvement in these [AT&T coverage] numbers, they would show up in a lot of these third-party tests.
“That’s where the rubber really hits the road. If the claim is that you’re covering more, I would expect you to do better with RootMetrics and reliability. And, if you’re not, it [AT&T’s coverage claim] doesn’t hold water … Again, a lot of these are self-reported, so it’s tough to tell what’s out there. But we just know that nothing has changed—they’re getting beat with it, and they continue to get beat.”
Indeed, Verizon’s network has maintained its status as the top overall wireless system by RootMetrics. However, the performance difference between the AT&T and Verizon networks has narrowed during the past three years, according to data from RootMetrics provided to IWCE’s Urgent Communications.
RootMetrics report for the period covering the last half of 2017—the last report before AT&T was named as the nationwide FirstNet contractor—Verizon received an overall score of 93.92, while AT&T had an overall score of 90.54. This 3.42 difference in score has decreased steadily in the six reports since then, culminating with a 1.38 difference in score for the second half of 2019, when RootMetrics awarded an overall score of 94.57 to Verizon and 93.19 to AT&T.
Most of the remaining difference is attributable to Verizon’s superiority in voice calling, which accounts for 40% of the overall score, according to RootMetrics. Although AT&T has closed the RootMetrics voice-calling score gap from 5.47 (90.07 for Verizon; 84.60 for AT&T) during the second half of 2016, the 2.84 difference during the most recent report still represents a sizeable margin.
In contrast, the RootMetrics scores for text and data—the services used most by first responders during an incident—attributed to the AT&T and Verizon networks are much closer.
In fact, the text scores have been so close that RootMetrics has declared a tie between Verizon and AT&T as tops in the category for the last two years of reports. In the data category, Verizon’s advantage of 2.07 (96.49 for Verizon; 94.42 for AT&T) during the second half of 2016 has decreased to 0.46 (95.13 for Verizon; 94.67 for AT&T) in the latest report for the second half of 2019.