How fast is your 4G network?

Smartphones on Canadian high-speed networks are not coming close to getting the speeds the networks' advertisements say they deliver, new tests suggest.

Mobile networks fall short of advertised speeds in CBC tests

Mobile phone companies in Canada do not yet offer 4G-compatible phones, but their advertising suggests customers can achieve 4G speeds. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Smartphones on Canadian high-speed networks are not coming close to getting the speeds the networks' advertisements suggest they may deliver, tests by CBC News find.

CBC News conducted the speed tests in four cities where networks advertise speeds of "up to 21" or even "up to 42 megabits per second (Mbps)." The test results were nowhere near that fast, averaging at best 1/10th that higher speed.

3G vs. 4G networks

Mobile service providers have been calling their networks 4G, meaning fourth generation, but this is a result of a change in the definition of 4G.

In December 2010, the organization that sets global standards for mobile communications, the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), decided that 3G technologies substantially better in performance and capability than earlier 3G technologies could be classified as 4G.

In other words, what was called a 3G network last year can now be called a 4G network, if it meets the new definition.

Advertised speed vs. achieved speed

When Bell and Telus advertise speeds of up to 42 Mbps, they are using a theoretical maximum. But their customers cannot actually achieve those speeds with their smartphones.

First of all, the mobile service providers in Canada do not offer smartphones that are capable of reaching 4G speeds. The iPhone 4, for example, is only capable of a theoretical maximum speed of 7.2 Mbps, according to Bell. (An iPhone 4 is a fourth-generation iPhone, but is only capable of 3G speeds.)

Unless you read the fine print, however, it can be hard to tell that from the advertisements.

On May 3, Telus informed CBC News that it is "launching soon our very first 4G speed smartphone in Canada."

In the U.S., Verizon recently introduced a 4G-compatible phone for its new 4G network. The phone, an HTC Thunderbolt, was tested by Walt Mossberg of All Things Digital, a website highly regarded in the tech community.

Changing definitions of 4G mobile networks have allowed companies to advertise their networks as 4G, even though they called them 3G in 2010. (Shannon Stapleton)

Mossberg reported that the Thunderbolt is a "speed demon" and Verizon has the fastest network in the U.S., using technology known as LTE (Long Term Evolution). But in his tests, the average speed was still just 12.6 Mbps.

The Bell and Telus networks CBC News tested have announced plans to deploy the LTE technology, but it won't be in place until at least 2012, nor do they offer a phone as fast as the one Mossberg was testing. So should they be advertising that their network speeds will be "up to 42 Mbps?"

What speed to advertise

Christopher Parsons of the University of Victoria studies telecommunications infrastructure. In a CBC News interview, Parsons said "the providers would be well-advised to start saying this is what we expect, this is the minimum that we guarantee."

In the U.K., the Mobile Broadband Group, a self-regulating body for the industry, considers it a principle that "download and upload speeds that are given in advertising and promotional material must be achievable by end users."

The group suggests a "range of download and upload speeds under normal conditions" be provided.

Parsons expects regulatory action in Canada on how companies market their speeds.

In an email to CBC News, Bell Mobility stated, "Our marketing lists theoretical network speeds as well as average or typical speeds, which is consistent with the way our wireless competitors advertise — though some make the average/typical speeds a little harder to find."

Different factors reduce speed

In addition to the type of network and the smartphone being used, many other factors influence the speed customers actually experience:

  • The weather: If it is raining or snowing, speeds will be slower.
  • Other users: The more people on a network, the slower it gets. And the more bandwidth that gets used, the slower the network gets. As customers use their phones more often to download high-quality video, for example, speeds will decline if there are no improvements to the network.
  • Signalling congestion: Even when a phone is not in use but is on, it sends out a signal to contact the cellphone towers, and the more phones that are on in an area, the slower the transmission rates will be for the phones that are in use at that moment.
  • Distance from a cellphone tower. (The greater the distance, the slower the speed.)
  • The strength of the radio signal.
  • The amount of internet traffic.

CBC News tests mobile network speed

CBC News tested the speeds of mobile phone networks in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Windsor, Ont., using an Apple iPhone 4. ((CBC))

Over 75 tests were conducted in four cities on Bell Mobility's network in Vancouver and Calgary, and on the Telus network in Calgary, Winnipeg and Windsor, Ont. The tests were conducted using an Apple iPhone 4.

The CBC testers used an application from Ookla, a U.S. company that claims to be "the global leader in broadband speed testing." Ookla's free application for mobile devices is

The highest speeds were measured in Winnipeg on Telus, with the fastest download clocking in at 6.14 Mbps and 3.93 Mbps for uploading. These results also have the highest average speeds in the CBC tests: 4.21 Mbps downloading and 2.42 Mbps uploading.

The CBC tests also showed slowest speeds were on Bell Mobility in Vancouver, averaging about 1.45 Mbps for both downloading and uploading (see graph for other numbers).

4G mobile networks: CBC test results

The graph shows the range of upload (green) and download (blue) speeds in the CBC News tests. The lower speeds are on the left, the higher speeds on the right. The larger the bar, the wider the range in the tests. ((CBC))