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AT&T’s speed test results aren’t as fast as they seem

Its download speeds have been skewed by so many people testing 5G E.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

AT&T is the fastest US mobile provider but probably not by as much as first reported, according to new information from speed-test company Ookla.

AT&T’s overall mobile speed was artificially inflated in Ookla’s latest speed ratings by the sheer number of people testing their new “5G E” connections, whose icon notification has recently started showing up on newer iPhone models. This, along with AT&T’s extensive 5G E advertising, is currently the subject of a Sprint lawsuit against the company for deceptive practices.

Thanks to 5G E visibility, owners of newer, faster iPhones in select cities conducted more speed tests than normal. As a result, the data is skewed more in favor of AT&T iPhone users than usual, because a larger share of survey takers were people with new AT&T iPhones than would normally occur on Ookla’s tests. Ookla measures speed on iPhones and Androids through user-initiated speed tests.

Interest in 5G E is higher than ever, judging from search results on Google. Some of that could be confusion about what it is. 5G E is AT&T parlance for 5G Evolution — but it is not 5G or the fifth generation of wireless networks; rather, it’s AT&T’s regular 4G LTE network with some speed upgrades. The 5G rollout by all carriers has been uneven. AT&T says it has 5G in 19 cities, but no smartphones can use it yet.

According to Ookla, “In the final week of Q1, we also observed an increase in faster tests taken on AT&T’s network. Upon investigation, we discovered that this correlated with the release of iOS 12.2 and the roll out of AT&T’s 5G E icon. We also found that the increase in tests was coming from device models that would have started to display the 5G E icon, such as the newer generations of iPhone (XR, XS Max, XS, X, 8, 8 Plus), indicating that consumers were seeing the new icon and taking a test to see what speeds they were getting.”

In the last week of March, AT&T’s mean download speed was 40.7 Mbps, followed by T-Mobile with 35.45, according to data AT&T first promoted. In the last quarter, AT&T’s mean download speed was a bit lower, 34.65 Mbps, followed closely by T-Mobile’s 34.11 Mbps, according to Ookla. Ookla doesn’t validate national claims based on less than a quarter’s worth of data. So while AT&T is certainly the fastest carrier, its win is much smaller than first appeared.

AT&T, which originally was the exclusive iPhone carrier, already had a higher prevalence of iPhone users than other carriers. In Ookla’s Q1 data, some 70 percent of speed-tested AT&T devices were iPhones. While Ookla also saw 5G E tests on some of the newest Samsung phones, the rate of tests was much higher among iPhones.

AT&T and Sprint have been gaining on T-Mobile and Verizon for some time in terms of average mobile download speed, according to Ookla, so the latest findings aren’t a surprise.

But when the buzz dies down around 5G E, AT&T’s speed test numbers will likely fall back down to earth.

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