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Does AT&T really offer a better mix of reliability and speed?

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September 14, 2013

Wireless industry research firm Root Metrics said late yesterday that AT&T marginally beat Verizon Wireless in the early results of its latest study. But this comes as a surprise since other market companies had already crowned Verizon as the top wireless carrier in the U.S. Root Metrics' report was based on a combination of overall speed and network reliability. Verizon has long held a leadership position in dependability and continues to do so in the most recent results.

However, AT&T has narrowed the gap considerably, which allows its speed advantage to put it over the top. The test, which began in July and tested about sixty markets, is only about 50 percent done and will be completed during the course of 2013.

The overall results could differ considerably when completed. Still, these kinds of kudos are increasingly important as the wireless carriers seek ways to stand out from each other.

With most of the carriers moving to the same high-speed cellular technologies, and offering many of the same high-profile smartphones, network quality is an important selling point.

The competitive environment has resulted in what amounts to a billion-dollar shouting match between the carriers, as each strives to tout the quality of their service.

AT&T set off another war of words in July by proclaiming itself the nation's fastest and most reliable network, nabbing away the reliability claim from Verizon.

AT&T based the claim off another, unnamed study. Verizon maintains that it is the most reliable network. "We've always been about reliability," said a Verizon representative. "It's about needing to get on the network and staying on the network."

AT&T, unsurprisingly, was pleased with the early results. "AT&T has the nation's fastest and most reliable 4G LTE network," said a company representative. "As the saying goes, it's not bragging if you can back it up."

AT&T edging out Verizon marks a big turning point for the company, which has long struggled with issues with network coverage and reliability. The issues were at their worst when AT&T had the exclusive rights to the iPhone and was overwhelmed by the deluge of traffic it brought.

Wireless subscribers mocked the carrier and forced AT&T to move quickly to improve its network. And while AT&T still faces a perception issue with its network, the recent studies reflect the work and money the company has put in to improve its network.

Moore said AT&T has moved up right behind Verizon in terms of reliability-- an unthinkable scenario even a few years ago. Even as RootMetrics had Verizon as the overall leader in the first half of the year, AT&T had gained ground, Moore said.

A number of recent studies showing the speed of its network have emboldened AT&T to invest more money into a campaign touting superiority over rival Verizon. The unnamed reliability study had only convinced AT&T to push even harder.

Moore added that he saw marked improvement from AT&T in the last few months. He said the call failure rate fell by 60 percent from a year ago, while data reliability improved, nevertheless.

The release of the new numbers by RootMetrics is an attempt by the firm to shed additional light on the shadowy world of cellular testing, whose methods are often disclosed, as well as better define the terms "reliability" and "speed," two words that are used very liberally by many firms.

"What we're trying to do is put a stake in the ground and challenge the industry," said Moore. His point is that cellular technology and services have evolved over the past fifteen years and testing processes need to evolve with the rest of the industry.

Reliability used to be about whether a phone could get a signal-- any signal. But Root Metrics defines it simply as being able to do "what you want to do, when you want to do it, without interruption," holding wireless carriers to a higher standing.

For Root Metrics, reliability applies to all calls, all data, and all text messages. For speed, RootMetrics goes beyond testing peak speeds, and looks practically at how quickly a user can accomplish a specific task on a smartphone. Moore noted that some wireless carriers with a higher peak speed actually have slower task completion times.

The results, which the firm is posting on its Web site, will include a Root Score that combines the two factors. But for the first time, the company will also break out the individual speed and reliability scores.

The other major wireless carriers, Sprint and T-Mobile, continued to lag behind the bigger players, particularly when it came to reliability, Moore added.

But he did note that both of the smaller carriers have made significant improvements, and touted T-Mobile's non-LTE network, which runs on a technology called HSPA+, as the fastest network behind LTE.

Ultimately, Moore said he is releasing more details on the scores and definition of wireless jargon to get the process out in the open, which he believes will educate consumers and result in better network improvements.

"We're holding ourselves to a transparent standard," Moore said. "We want to be under the microscope." We'll keep you posted on these and other developments.

In other mobile news

It's reported today that T-Mobile are offering Appleís iPhone 5C for no cash down and 24 monthly payments of just $22. That comes out to $528, a nice discount off the deviceís $550 unsubsidized price tag from Apple.

As far as Sprint goes, the company is offering the 32 GB iPhone 5C for $99 and 24 payments of $23, which matches its price for the 16 GB iPhone 5S.

Both plans total a little more than $650. Opting into the Jump Early Upgrade Program will add an extra $10 per month.

Sprint also decided to offer the 16 GB iPhone 5C for zero down and the 32 GB device for $99, both with a two-year contract. Sprint is waiving part of the down payment for the iPhone 5C as part of a deal for customers bringing an existing number to Sprint.

Its contract pricing for the iPhone 5S starts at $99 down and goes up to $299 for the 64 GB model. Sprint has chosen to focus on unlimited data while the other wireless carriers pit early upgrade programs against each other.

In regards to its own early upgrade program, AT&T also chimed in with its new iPhone pricing program. The 16 GB iPhone 5C costs $22 per month and the 32 GB costs $27 per month while the iPhone 5S runs $27 per month for 16 GB, $32 per month of 32 GB, and $37 per month for 64 GB.

AT&Tís two-year agreement pricing for the iPhone 5C starts at $99 and goes up to $199 while the iPhone 5S starts at $199 and goes as high as $399.

For its part, Verizonís two-year contract pricing for the iPhone 5C also starts at $99 and goes up to $199. The device is available through Verizonís own Edge early upgrade program, starting at $23 per month for 16 GB and $27 per month for 32 GB.

Overall, pricing for the iPhone 5S has yet to show up on Verizonís website but itís extremely likely it will fall very close to the prices already offered by AT&T.

Pre-orders have begun today for the iPhone 5C. Both the 5C and the iPhone 5S will be available in the United Sates next Friday in the lower 48.

Given the specifications gap and features lost between the 5S and 5C, the 5Cís relatively higher price tag has ended up costing Apple. Rumors before the launch pegged the iPhone 5C as coming in closer to the $300 to $400 range.

In other mobile news

According to what we've seen so far, Apple's new 64-bit iOS will be faster than its 32-bit counterpart, but don't expect that the CPU's speed and the phone's overall features will double in performance because they won't. But you will definitely see a speed improvement, it's a given.

Apple did say that the chip is compatible with all the iOSs out there that are still 32-bit. For the moment, that is all third-party programs and mobile apps.

For now, Apple hasnít said how much RAM the new iPhone 5S contains, but itís not going to be of the order that the new 64-bit processor makes possible.

As things stand now, software running on the 32-bit ARM processor family used by Apple can access up to 4 GB of virtual memory, and the chip can potentially access up to 1 TB of physical memory, thanks to a 40-bit physical address width, which is a cool improvement.

However, thereís still no sign that iPhones will gain that much RAM in the near future and certainly not the 256 TB of physical memory the new A7 can easily address.

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Although pointers into virtual memory can be 64-bit wide on that new processor, the chip's architecture defines a 48-bit physical address system.

A lot of software could use some extra headroom with 64-bit pointers, although that may boil down to effectively 48 bits of useful virtual address space per app. Keep in mind that the upper bits are being reserved for the operating system and some unmapped space.

So why throw in a 64-bit CPU if it won't improve the overall performance of the device in a meaningful way? The cynic might say that itís nothing more than a marketing pitch.

Of course Apple is very keen to claim it was the first and the only phone maker to put a 64-bit chip in a smartphone, well at least for now anyway. The company will probably make the same claim for its iPad when it upgrades the device to the A7 chip shortly.

Can you blame Apple for doing such gimmicks? Probably not, but then again, some might not agree with all the hoopla.

Nevertheless, Apple is pitching improved performance-- up to twice the performance of the 32-bit A6, it claims. To provide that performance enhancement, the A7 chip contains twice as many integer and floating-point registers as its predecessors do.

That allows the processor to be loaded with more data all at once, in turn meaning there will be fewer subsequent cache or memory accesses. The result is that the coreís arithmetic units spend less time standing idle awaiting numbers to crunch.

Apple is telling iOS app developers that focusing on the use of 64-bit integer maths is a particularly efficient way to take advantage of the new processor.

Likewise, making use of ARMís NEON instructions is the architectureís long-awaited answer to Intelís SSE single instruction data operations.

Appleís new A7 chip is based on ARMís 'v8' design, which also incorporates instructions to accelerate the AES and SHA-1/SHA-256 cryptography algorithms. Apple itself is likely to be using these in its Touch ID biometric control mechanism as well.

Those advantages are all well and good for 64-bit apps, but not for 32-bit code. Apple itself admits that 32-bit code wonít run as quickly or as efficiently on the A7 as a 64-bit version of the software will.

Additionally remember that implementing 64-bit code has a downside as well-- when your data units are twice as big, a long integer takes up four bytes on an A6-based iPhone, but eight bytes on an A7 device, for example, so you'll need twice as much memory to store the same amount of data.

Appleís iPhone 5S tech specs donít reveal how much memory has been built into the 5S, but 2 GB, double the RAM fitted to the A6 and A6X chips seems likely, especially given Appleís claim that the A7 has more than a billion transistors on board.

And using more bytes to store a specific value also means that the host chipís caches become less capacious as well, and that can degrade performance on certain apps that are more CPU intensive.

Again, Apple hasnít revealed how big are the A7ís caches, though itís widely being assumed for the moment that the A7 contains the same 32 KB instruction set and data caches, and a 1 MB L2 cache as the A6.

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Source: Root Metrics.

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