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The State of 3G

Currently, 3G is the most used data speed in the US by the two big carriers: AT&T and Verizon.  While they are similar on the surface, there are three main differences that effect consumers.

First, when using Verizon 3G you cannot talk on the phone and surf the web at the same time.  This is because they are uses CMDA 3G which has only one "pipe" to transmit both data and voice signals.  So when voice is using the pipe, data cannot.  AT&T, however, uses GSM 3G which has two different "pipes" coming in to your phone for each signal and gives them the advantage of allowing users to talk and surf at the same time.  However, this advantage will disappear with 4G LTE since it can transmit both data and voice simultaneously.  More on this next time.

The second difference is that Verizon's 3G technology, CDMA, is not used worldwide.  Instead, GSM (which AT&T and everyone else uses) is the technology that the world adopted.  This means that in order to use your Verizon phone internationally, you have to specifically have a "world phone" which can operate on GSM networks when required.  However (same as the first point) this limitation will disappear for Verizon users once they get 4G LTE, since it is the international standard.

The third and biggest difference between the two companies 3G is that Verizon 3G is commonly slower than AT&T 3G.  Of course, this is a large generalization and the common knock against AT&T is that they have faster speeds but more dropped calls.  In my experience and the reports I've seen this is certainly true.  But, in my experience and reports it's also certainly true that AT&T 3G is faster.

Now, before I continue, I should point out that the best carrier is whichever one can provide the most reliable and fast service where you need it.  There is no carrier that is the fastest, the most reliable, and everywhere.  When considering which is best for you, I like this handy app called Cell Phone Coverage Map that uses crowdsourcing to test carrier's coverage maps.  It collects real world volunteered test so you can see exactly where the dead spots are in your city without bias. 

Now, back to Verizon 3G being slower than AT&T...  

Many sites have run tests of the 3G networks and concluded that AT&T is the fastest.  I reviewed them all and have found that Verizon 3G typically is 1-2 mbps, whereas AT&T is typically 2-4 mbps.  This also has to do with the fact that AT&T uses the previously mentioned 3G+ and the current iPhone 4S has chipsets capable of capturing these higher rate speeds.

Gizmodo performed a nationwide test of the iPhone 4S on the current 3G network and found exactly what we thought they would.  Notice that the speed is in kbps so just move the decimal 3 places to get mbps.

So in general, Verizon 3G is slower but more reliable while AT&T is faster but suffers from dropped calls in some cities. Now that we've set the stage, next week we will continue with seeing who is winning the race to 4G LTE.