Who Has the Slowest LTE Speeds in the U.S. -- and Why?

A recent report from network testing company OpenSignal has some surprising news, not only about which countries with widespread and mature LTE networks give their citizens the fastest -- and slowest -- LTE download speeds, but also which networks in those countries are the greyhounds and which ones are the relative slugs.

It should be noted that OpenSignal's testing did not measure a network's technical speed limits. It measured the actual speeds recorded by users' handsets, and not all handsets can download at the same speeds.

First, the good news: the U.S. does not have the slowest average LTE download speeds. The Teddy Roosevelt Award goes to Japan as the ninth-fastest LTE country with an average speed of 7.1 Mbps.

The bad news is that the U.S. is only No. 8 with a 9.6 average speed, a speed less than half what the inhabitants of Sweden -- the first country to roll out an LTE network and the country with the fastest download speeds (22.1 Mbps) -- can expect.

Here is the breakdown of the U.S. network LTE download speeds:

  1. AT&T, 13 Mbps
  2. Verizon, 10 Mbps
  3. Sprint Nextel, 7.7 Mbps
  4. MetroPCS (NYSE: TMUS  ) , 1.2 Mbps

The obvious outlier here is MetroPCS, and the obvious question is: Why?

According to OpenSignal, part of the reason for MetroPCS' poor showing is that users of MetroPCS' prepaid no-contract network are using LTE devices with lower specifications. That is, their handsets could not take advantage of an ultra -fast LTE network, even if one were there.

Another part of the story is that MetroPCS' LTE speeds are constrained by its 5 MHz channel. The 20 MHz channels used by most U.S. carriers have a much greater speed potential.

Other factors that can impact a network's download speeds are a country's population density. Faster LTE speeds are found in areas where people are concentrated in urban areas. Countries like the U.S., with large sparsely populated areas -- and the networks that serve less concentrated populations -- would not perform as well.

However, that can't always be the reason for slower speeds. Japan is one of the more densely populated countries at 836 people per square mile, and Sweden is one of the more sparsely populated countries at 57 people per square mile.

An important thing to keep in mind regarding MetroPCS and its LTE network is its upcoming merger with T-Mobile USA. T-Mobile is planning its own LTE network in 2013 and both companies' networks will have to merge, too. That will obviously have an effect on LTE download speeds, but how is to be determined. However, it doesn't seem likely MetroPCS' speeds could go much lower.

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