Not all 4G networks are created equal. AT&T, Verizon and Sprint use terms like 4G, 4G LTE and HSPA+ to market smartphones to customers.
However, these buzzwords offer little in the way of explanation as to how reliable the three major U.S. networks perform when it comes to high-speed data downloads.
That's why we decided to test out 4G LTE phones of all three major U.S. carriers in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Hermosa Beach, and on everyone in LA's second home, the highway.
Armed with a trio of smartphones that consumers are likely to buy today, we examined the coverage, speed, and price using an iPhone on AT&T's network and a pair of Samsung Galaxy S4 phones on Verizon and Sprint's network.
Three will enter. one will win.
What is 4G LTE exactly?
4G LTE is a high-speed wireless standard built into newer smartphones that is 10 times faster than 3G connections.
That's a significant speed bump amounting to a theoretical 300 MB/s. But LTE, or "long-term evolution," is just a bridge to the 1GB/s that was originally outlined for 4G.
LTE-Advanced is supposed to offer that in the future.
Until then, carriers are marketing to (and confusing) consumers with terms like "super fast 4G LTE" and "true 4G" - as opposed to fake counterfeit 4G LTE.
Who says they have the best 4G network coverage?
Verizon claims to have "America's largest 4G LTE network" that covers 95 percent of the U.S. population. It boasts that "Verizon is America's most reliable network. Period." That's three periods in a row, so you know the company is super serious.
AT&T uses similar marketing claims, though far less punctuation, touting "the nation's largest 4G network" and "the nation's fastest and most reliable 4G LTE network."
Sprint doesn't participate in any of the silly one-upmanship. Instead it by promising to continue to roll out "more reliable coverage, stronger signals and increased data speeds."
Verizon and AT&T can't both be right. Right?
Who actually has the best 4G network coverage?
Testing out all three smartphones with the best speed test apps available for iOS and Android, we found that Verizon had a slightly more consistent signal save for a few areas that received little to no data.
Verizon was more reliable than AT&T and Sprint in the city, especially indoors, and only faltered in the outskirts. That's still a serious problem for data-deprived people who live in the suburbs.
AT&T would sputter indoors during a few tests, but its data speeds would jump right back up at other times, offering strong but overall inconsistent coverage. Its main weakness was indoor venues in the skyscraper-filled downtown area.
Sprint had more in common with Verizon than AT&T. Coverage was okay in the city, but less reliable further from the center of Los Angeles and on highways.
It's all about the coverage map
Verizon had the more consistent network city-by-city, but there's another piece of information you should always check before buying into a new 4G LTE network: the coverage map.
The Verizon, AT&T and Sprint 4G LTE coverage maps from CellReception pinpoint the location of each network's tower locations. In a way, they back up exactly what our speed tests found.
Verizon did pitiful in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach, for example. That's because the carrier has fewer cell towers in this stretch of the California coastline. Sure enough, our tests reflected that.
The No. 1 thing you can do before signing up for a new network is to check the 4G LTE coverage maps before making the switch.