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Monday, August 25, 2008's iPhone 3G Survey Reveals Network Weaknesses

By Brian X. Chen EmailAugust 25, 2008 | 4:04:41 AMCategories: Apple, iPhone, Our Telco Overlords, Phone's survey of iPhone 3G users' suggests that widespread data speed problems have more to do with carriers' networks than with Apple's handsets.

Recently asked iPhone 3G users all around the world to participate in a study, which involved testing their 3G speeds and entering their data on an interactive map. The purpose? To gain a general idea of how 3G was performing -- where it's best and where it's worst -- in light of widespread complaints about the handset's network performance. More than 2,600 people participated (wow!) and we've diligently cleaned up the data to present it to you here.

In the map above, each colored bar indicates the relative 3G download speed for an individual respondent. Purple dots represent several respondents clustered together geographically. (If you don't see many colored bars, zoom in on an area until the purple dots disappear and are replaced by colored bars.) To speak very generally, the data overall shows that 3G is performing faster than EDGE (which is expected). In the best scenarios, 3G is up to seven times faster than EDGE; in worse scenarios, 3G performed just as slowly as EDGE; at worst, some users couldn't connect to 3G at all -- which isn't surprising since 3G towers are not yet ubiquitous.

Detailed observations from the survey follow.

  • By country:
    • Participants in Australia reported the slowest average 3G download speeds of about 759 Kbps.
    • The most "0" results for 3G download speeds came from U.S. participants -- presumably those dropped from the 3G network. In the United States, 63 participants reported "0" Altogether there were 80 "0" figures reported.
    • Users in Germany and the Netherlands reported the fastest average 3G download speeds -- about 2,000 Kbps.
  • In some major metropolitan areas that are supposedly 3G-rich, 3G performance can be very slow. For example, zooming in on San Francisco, you'll see that 10 out of 30 participants reported very slow 3G speeds -- barely surpassing EDGE.
    • This pattern is linea up with femtocell developer Dave Nowicki's explanation that in major metropolitan cities where the most iPhone users reside, 3G towers are getting overloaded, resulting in slowdowns or delivering EDGE-like performance as a result.
  • By carrier:
    • European T-Mobile users reported the fastest 3G Download Speeds: 1,822 Kbps on average.
    • Canadian carriers Rogers and Fido tied for second fastest with an average download speed of about 1,330 Kbps on average.
    • U.S. carrier AT&T tied for third with Telstra, Telia and Softbank, where users reported average download speeds of roughly 990 Kbps.
    • Australian carriers Optus and Virgin users reported the slowest speeds of about 390 Kbps on average.

Other figures:

  • Overall, 2,636 iPhone 3G owners participated in the study (that doesn't count more than a thousand entries which were completely blank or so incomplete as to be unusable).
    • 1,638 were in the United States
    • 233 were in Australia
    • 152 were in Canada
    • The majority of the remaining participants reported results from European countries

Assess what you will, Gadget Lab readers. In our view, this data is a strong indicator that performance of the mobile carrier's network is affecting the iPhone 3G more than the handset itself. This also furthers our thesis that it's highly unlikely that Apple is going to wave a magical wand and say, "3G problems, be gone," with a software update. Before Apple can make such a claim, it needs to wait for all of its carriers to optimize 3G network behavior -- in terms of number of towers, how they're positioned and how much bandwidth each tower can handle.

Want to see the raw data from which we drew the above map? We're providing a Google spreadsheet at this link: All the data from's iPhone 3G study. That spreadsheet includes data on 3G download and upload speeds as well as EDGE download and upload speeds (where available), and we've taken the trouble of making all the data more or less consistent (in Kbps) and fairly accessible. If you use this data to do your own charts, maps, or other analyses, we'd love to hear about them, so please put a link to your own analyses in the comments.

With all that said, would like to extend a thank you to each of the 2,636 who participated in the study (4,200 if you include those who insufficiently participated). We'd also like to thank for providing the service for participants to test the iPhone -- and especially for buying a new server just to handle the large amount of users testing their iPhones for our study.

I'd also like to recognize the staff members who helped put together this study:

  • Dylan Tweney for his arduous efforts in cleaning up this massive amount of data
  • Kent Carter for making the Zeemap easily digestible by assigning those wonderful color-bar markers
  • Holl Liou for designing the custom color-bar markers

And last but not least, all the blogs that linked to our study, to help us gather so much data: Gizmodo, MacRumors, ArsTechnica, TUAW, The iPhone Blog, T4 Show, iFones and Swik. We owe each of you a big one.


Anonymous August 25, 2008 at 10:19 AM  

Very interesting survey, which leads me to believe that it could be worse... I could be living in Australia.

Besides, the iPhone is still the best smart phone out there.