Mobile network performance across the US: our complete metro area rankings 1H 2017

Alex Gaw, RootMetrics

August 24, 2017

Mobile phones have come to occupy a central role in our digital lives. As consumers increasingly rely on their phones to connect to others and to the world at large, mobile networks are under greater pressure to deliver solid, reliable service. Because Americans are becoming more and more reliant on their phones, consumers demand that carriers provide solid, dependable service with virtually zero service interruptions. Anything less than perfection is not only inconvenient, it’s a major disruption to the quality of your mobile experience.

While mobile performance is generally satisfactory across the country, our data shows that not all areas are created equal when it comes to network performance. Moreover, performance in some areas may improve—or decline—over time.

To show which areas offered the best mobile performance, we took RootScores from the top 125 most populated metropolitan markets in the country tracked by RootMetrics and then ranked them from highest to lowest across each of our six categories:

  • Overall performance testing: a combination of reliability and speed results from data, call, and text testing.
  • Network reliability testing: a holistic look at reliability performance across data, call, and text testing.
  • Network speed testing: a holistic look at speed performance across data testing.
  • Data testing: reliability and speed during file uploads and downloads, as well as while downloading files that represent loading typical webpages and apps.
  • Call testing: how reliably each network can place and maintain calls. Tests are conducted by placing a call from a mobile phone to a landline number, as well from a mobile phone to other mobile phones within the same carrier’s network.
  • Text testing: how reliably and quickly consumers can send and receive text messages.

Our rankings are based on an average of the RootScores of all four major US networks—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—in a given metropolitan area, weighted by the estimated national percentage of subscribers for each network. This means performance scores from networks that have more customers are weighted heavier than scores from networks with fewer subscribers.

Mobile performance in the country’s ten largest cities: bigger isn’t necessarily better

Contrary to expectations, the largest metropolitan markets don’t necessarily have the best mobile performance.

Of the country’s ten largest metropolitan areas, Chicago, IL, was the lone entry in our top 10 overall performance rankings. The third most populous US metropolis with 8.6 million residents, Chicago landed at #4 for mobile performance. The Windy City has been a strong performer in our overall performance category for three consecutive test periods, ranking in the top 8 each time. In our previous report, we noted that Chicago dropped in ranking from #2 in the first half of 2016 to #8 in the second half of last year. This time, it rebounded thanks to high rankings in network speed (#2) and data performance (#3). Residents in Chicago enjoyed improved median download speeds from AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, and all four carriers in Chicago also delivered good data reliability rates for getting connected and staying connected to the network.

On the other hand, the country’s largest metropolitan area, New York City and the Tri-State Area, NY, dropped slightly in our overall performance rankings since the second half of 2016, sliding from #66 to #74. This metropolis of 18.3 million placed no higher than #66 for network speed, network reliability, data, call, or text performance. In three of these five categories, the area’s ranking hovered in the 80s. Moreover, its rate of mobile-to-landline blocked calls worsened among all four carriers during this period, and two out of four carriers had lower rates of getting connected to the network in our data reliability testing in the first half of 2017.

Aside from Chicago, only two other areas among the country’s 10 most populous metropolitan regions placed within the top 30 in overall mobile performance: Atlanta, GA, at #14; and Dallas, TX, at #23.

In the case of Atlanta, we noted in our previous report that the country’s ninth-largest metropolitan area had retreated in all six performance categories compared to those in the first half of 2016. In first-half 2017 testing, however, Atlanta made some positive strides, particularly with a #2 rank in data performance and a #3 showing in network speed.

Dallas, the sixth most populous US metropolitan market with 5.1 million people, scored well in reliability (#10) and call performance (#11).

Boston made the biggest jump among the top 10 most populous metropolitan areas, up a massive 42 spots from #97 to #55 in overall performance, by virtue of higher rankings in all test categories in this period. All four carriers improved their data speeds, with T Mobile recording the fastest median download and median upload speeds of all networks at 35.1 Mbps and 16.7 Mbps, respectively. All four carriers in Boston also successfully slashed the rate of mobile-to-mobile blocked calls and mobile-to-landline dropped calls, with T Mobile again delivering the most dramatic results, cutting its rate from 1.8% to just 0.3%. Moreover, the networks in Boston had higher data reliability rates for staying connected in this test period, with AT&T finishing as the area’s top carrier for getting connected and staying connected.

Among the ten most populous areas, the biggest drop in ranking occurred with Houston, TX, which plunged 52 spots from #18 to #70 in overall performance. The median download speeds for all four carriers either declined or stayed the same compared to those in our previous test period, while the median upload speeds for all four carriers declined. Additionally, Houston ranked relatively low across the board, finishing no higher than #43 in any category.

Compared to Houston, only New York City and the Tri-State Area and Los Angeles, CA, had lower overall rankings within the ten most populous areas. Los Angeles, with more than 12 million inhabitants, fell 28 spots to #77, dragged down by low rankings in data (#53), network speed (#55), network reliability (#88), call (#92), and text (#103). Moreover, three out of four carriers recorded higher mobile-to-landline dropped call rates, and all four reported higher mobile-to-mobile blocked calls in Los Angeles.

It’s important to note that a drop in ranking may not necessarily mean that an area performed poorly in the most recent round of testing compared to the previous period. Instead, a decline can sometimes occur because other metropolitan areas in the country simply fared better and improved their standing overall.

Top 5 performing markets

Among the largest 125 metropolitan areas in the United States, Lansing, MI, topped our overall mobile performance rankings during first-half 2017 testing, moving up from 20th in the previous round. Lansing also finished the first half of 2017 ranked #1 in network speed and data performance, #3 in call performance, and #4 in network reliability. The only category in which Lansing failed to make a top 5 showing was in text performance, where it was still a top 10 finisher, ranking #7. Median download speeds were strong overall in Lansing, from Sprint’s 22.8 Mbps to T-Mobile’s blazing-fast 48.9 Mbps, which also happened to be the fastest speed we recorded from any of the four carriers in all 125 cities in the first half of 2017. The networks in Lansing likewise had excellent data reliability rates for both getting connected and staying connected; AT&T, for instance, achieved success rates of 100% in both measures.

Runner-up to Lansing was Indianapolis, IN, the former #1 in overall performance during second-half 2016 testing. This metropolitan market of almost 1.5 million placed #3 in network reliability and ranked #4 in network speed, data, and call performance.

Rounding out the rest of the top 5 in overall performance were Modesto, CA, up from #10 to #3; Chicago, up from #8 to #4; and Port St. Lucie, FL, up an impressive 66 spots from #71 to #5. Port St. Lucie also ranked #1 in text—it was the only market in the top 5 for overall performance to also rank in the top 5 in the text category.

We found some interesting results in the other five performance categories as well. In both the reliability and call performance categories, the top spot belonged to McAllen, TX, 56th in population. Yet McAllen ranked near the bottom in data performance (#108) and in network speed (#117). Such a lopsided showing for McAllen was likely the result of strong data reliability but slow data speeds from the carriers in McAllen. What this means is that McAllen residents could be well pleased with their ability to get connected and stay connected—borne out, in fact, by improved results in those two metrics for all four carriers—but not that pleased with speeds that often trailed those recorded in other metropolitan areas.

Two other metropolitan areas that performed well in specific test categories were Mobile, AL, finishing at #5 in call and network reliability; Chattanooga, TN, coming in at #5 in network speed; and Fort Wayne, IN, ranking #5 in data. And in the text performance category, the runners-up to #1 Port St. Lucie were all markets that did not appear in the top 5 in any other performance category. These included Provo, UT; Ogden, UT; Austin, TX; and Ann Arbor, MI.

Bottom 5 performing markets

At the opposite end of the performance spectrum, Hudson Valley, NY, is an area that frequents the bottom of our rankings. In the current round of testing, Hudson Valley ranked at or near the bottom across all six categories: #125 in overall performance, network reliability, and call performance; #124 in both data and text performance; and #121 in network speed. Additionally, a majority of the median download and upload speeds of all four carriers were slower this time than in the previous round, and the rate of mobile-to-landline blocked calls also rose in all four. Some networks in Hudson Valley likewise experienced lower reliability rates for both staying connected and getting connected in this round of testing when compared to other markets.

Omaha, NE, is another market that can frequently be found at or near the bottom of our rankings in multiple categories. Omaha placed among the bottom two in overall performance during the previous three rounds of testing and ranked #122 overall in the current testing period. There are, however, positive signs for residents in Omaha. For this cycle, Omaha managed to improve its ranking in two categories: in network speed, which jumped from #125 to #38; and data performance, which improved from # 125 to #88. In short, Omaha has made positive strides in two categories that are of the utmost importance to consumers.

Making up the remaining bottom 5 in overall performance were Indio, CA, at #121; Hartford, CT, at #123; and Bridgeport and Stamford, at #124. These three replace the previous test period’s bottom-finishers of Springfield, MA; Santa Rosa, CA; and Worcester, MA—all of which stepped up slightly in the rankings this year and no longer finished in the bottom 5.

How did your city fare?

Finally, the chart below provides full rankings of all 125 major metropolitan areas tested by RootMetrics. See how your city fared compared to the rest of the country, and read our individual Metro Area RootScore Reports for even more information.

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