Here’s how this mega-merger could be good or bad for long-time customers. USA TODAY
The proposed union of Sprint and T-Mobileis no merger of equals: Over the last few years, T-Mobile’s coverage and performance have leapt much farther ahead than Sprint’s.
This means that if you’re a Sprint customer and have been frustrated by network performance, you may want to cheer on the deal with T-Mobile. If you’re a T-Mobile customer, it doesn’t represent much of an upgrade. For both groups, this tie-up—which still has to be approved by regulators—carries the risk of higher prices and fewer deals.
For simple speed, though, the merger offers a lot of potential upside for Sprint users. Consider the results found by four nationwide tests of the big four carriers—two relying on crowdsourced data, two based on scheduled drive testing.
OpenSignal drew on almost 6 billion measurements made by its free network-testing apps on the phones of 237,213 users over the fourth quarter of 2017 to rank T-Mobile the fastest of the big four —and Sprint as the lowest.
Specifically, that London-based research firm found that T-Mo’s downloads averaged 19.42 megabits per second, versus 12.02 Mbps for Sprint.
But, OpenSignal’s report noted, Sprint has improved notably, with LTE speeds increasing by 33% over the last year. The firm’s analysis voiced confidence in Sprint: “If it continues its steep upwards trajectory, it could soon put pressure on AT&T for the third-place slot.”
Results from the more widely-used network-test app, Speedtest, yielded a similar ranking. Speedtest’s Sept. 7, 2017 report, based on data from the first half of that year, assigned “Speed Scores” — a metric combining results for upload and download performance — of 23.17 to T-Mobile and 15.39 to Sprint.
Speedtest’s parent firm Ookla also agreed that Sprint would continue to improve: “Sprint is well positioned for even more improvement moving forward.”
PCMag.com, owned by the publishing firm Ziff Davis, which also owns Ookla, sends testers driving around the country for its Fastest Mobile Networks report. Last year’s, the latest available, ranked Verizon tops by a narrow margin above T-Mobile, with AT&T and Sprint further behind overall.
For instance, PCMag measured average downloads of 29.3 Mbps for T-Mobile and 20.5 Mbps for Sprint. Uploads showed an even wider gap: 18.3 Mbps for T-Mobile, just 6.5 Mbps for Sprint.
But RootMetrics, which like PCMag does drive testing, ranked Sprint third and T-Mobile fourth after Verizon and then AT&T in its latest report, issued in February. RootMetrics’ data, based on measurements over the second half of 2017, gave Sprint a score of 87.8, with T-Mobile just behind at 86.8.
Why? Root’s tests cover voice and text performance, not just data. They found T-Mobile weaker in those areas even as they ranked T-Mobile’s data performance well ahead of Sprint’s (93.1 and 87.7).
All this—and the real-world experience of subscribers to Google’s Project Fi, which aggregates the networks of Sprint, T-Mobile and the regional carrier US Cellular—suggests that Sprint subscribers would have more to gain from combining the two firms’ networks.
But they’ll also need phones that support T-Mobile’s LTE frequencies. A chart prepared by PCMag.com shows that Sprint’s versions of the iPhone 8 and X can use four of T-Mobile’s five bands, while the iPhone 5 can’t use any.
In general, older phones are least prepared for a combined network–but they’re also the most likely to have been retired by the time this deal closes and the two firms begin weaving together their networks. Which, if federal regulators have other ideas, may never actually happen.
(Disclosures: I also write for Yahoo Finance, which is a property of Verizon’s Oath media division, and in 2013 Sprint’s LTE coverage was so weak that I paid an early-termination fee to switch to T-Mobile.)