Verizon 4G LTE Review: the Good, the Bad and the Weird

I love to review products whilst travelling. I find that when I’m not at home, I rely much more heavily on the products I review and thus can give a unique perspective on those products. It’s not until you’re away from the comforts of your home and your own surroundings that you realize how much you take these kinds of gadgets for granted.

Because I went to CTIA 2011 in Orlando, Florida last week, I knew this was the perfect opportunity to get some in-depth testing of some of my review products. There were two in particular I was extremely excited to check out: the HTC Thunderbolt and Pantech UML290 LTE USB modem.

Why was I so particularly interested in testing these two gadgets? They’re both signature products on Verizon’s still-new LTE network, which is only available in certain cities across the country. Though Verizon announced expansion to a total of 147 US cities by the end of 2011, only 38 are covered currently, and my hometown is unfortunately not one of them. I was very excited at the prospect of taking my brand new Thunderbolt, the very first LTE phone on Verizon, and the Pantech USB modem, which has been out a longer period of time but still crucial for me to do some testing on.

Orlando is one of the 38 markets blanketed by LTE, so I was ready for a smooth process and all of my data needs at CTIA would be totally covered by these two devices, right? Well, not so fast.

You may have read my article that listed Verizon’s LTE coverage at CTIA as one of the worst parts of the show. But I must emphasize that I was referring to coverage I experienced at the show — which was swarming with other tech powerhouses that either have purchased LTE equipment on Verizon or were taking review units for a spin, much like I was — and not the LTE network itself. Regardless, I don’t think Verizon was quite ready for the onslaught of bandwidth hogs that a show like CTIA attracts.

In general terms, the Verizon 4G network is the strongest and fastest at present time. Part of this is due to the LTE technology itself, which is indeed faster than WiMax and most of T-Mobile’s HSPA+ (though now that they are expanding out to speeds of 42 Mbps, this is a harder point to argue currently). It is what many tech gurus feel is true 4G, not “faux G” as Dan Hesse has called the competition. The other reason it’s strong and fast is the lack of market penetration the 4G network has experienced. It’s still freshly-baked, hot out of the oven, so there isn’t as much saturation of the network as its 3G has. Simply put, the less people on the network, the faster it will go.

I experienced the best and worst of the network in Orlando, and it depended on my location. The worst, of course, was at CTIA itself. There were a few places inside the Convention Center that were so bad I could not get my USB stick to maintain a constant connection. It would start off with a full signal and then, a few seconds later, cut off for no reason just to come back with full bars and force me to reconnect.

I need these speeds to be as fast as possible, since I publish a lot of videos on YouTube, especially during trade shows like CTIA. My job is dependant upon getting the fastest speeds possible, so this is why my experience at the Convention Center was so frustrating. There was even one point when none of my LTE equipment would could at a decent speed or with any decent consistency, that I resorted to tethering my AT&T iPhone to my computer to upload videos (I point out the irony in this statement, considering AT&T’s history at previous trade shows has been less than satisfactory; on the contrary, AT&T’s service worked great for me at CTIA).

I also tried the equipment in my hotel, roughly a mile away from the CC. The LTE worked perfectly fine here, though with lower reception than I would prefer; even right next to the window I could never get a higher signal than 2 bars. The stronger the signal, the faster the speeds. I found this to be bizarre because I shouldn’t need to be next to the window anyways, as the 700 MHz spectrum the LTE signal uses is low enough to penetrate buildings with ease.

At the airport, I had wonderfully strong signals and the network was at its prime in terms of download and upload speeds; my USB stick hummed along quite nice with no problems at all. In particular, I noticed the great upload speeds the network is capable of. When at the airport I ran several tests on all of my equipment, and my downloads averaged between 5-15 Mbps normally, and uploads averaged 4-8. I was completely blown away. In fact, my USB stick never dipped lower than 4 Mbps up at any time during all of my tests at the airport.

This is how I know the LTE works great — when it wants to work. But it appears the network may be ill prepared to handle large amounts of traffic. I had been told Verizon brought in a COW (Cellular on Wheels) to help handle the additional load placed on the network, but I could not seem to benefit from any impact the COW may have had at CTIA.

There was one other point of frustration for me, which was the performance of the HTC Thunderbolt’s mobile hotspots and tethering capabilities in general. I will get more into specifics in my review coming up shortly, but suffice to say that I eventually stopped even trying to use it after enough failed attempts. I’m pretty sure this has something to do with faulty firmware or a malicious bug of some kind, because I know the Thunderbolt was getting superfast speeds directly on the phone but virtually no LTE performance while in tethering mode. I also spoke with several colleagues at the show that had the same experience with their Thunderbolts.

So even though I had to air my frustrations here about Verizon 4G coverage while at the show, I also experienced the LTE network at its best at other times, which is the most important part. It’s a given that a brand-new infrastructure will take time to build out and become perfectly stable, and it’s definitely not at that point yet. But at its strongest, Verizon’s 4G network has greater potential to blow every other network’s 4G coverage out of the water completely.

With average download speeds ranging between 5-15 Mbps and average upload speeds of 4-8 (not counting the occasional spike or dip in speed from time to time), this is my choice for the best 4G network — the way it is right now. Meaning, I may change my mind when more people buy into 4G and the coverage starts getting bogged down, if CTIA 2011 is a foreshadowing. This was a great test drive for the network to learn its strengths and weaknesses, and I am extremely hopeful Verizon will come out with a much stronger 4G network in consequence.

What have your experiences been with Verizon’s 4G coverage so far? Please let us know in the comments!

Get the Pantech UML290 LTE Data Stick on Amazon for $19.99, or on LetsTalk for one penny

Get the HTC Thunderbolt on Amazon or Get it Today at Wirefly!

Author: Brad Molen

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