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AT&T Streaming Test: Advertised Speeds vs. Actual User Experience
Don’t count on high streaming quality outside your home
Let’s test two very popular things—AT&T wireless and streaming live TV. Tons of folks use AT&T wireless, and all of us stream stuff, so let’s see how the two get along. To perform this test, we’ll be streaming live TV (on YouTube TV) from three separate locations (the suburbs, a crowded mall, and in the wilderness) on an AT&T wireless connection.
What are we looking for?
The main metric we care about for this AT&T streaming test is the live latency. Live latency refers to how far behind the stream is from live TV. The lower the latency, the smoother your streaming experience will be.
Latency also makes a huge difference when you’re streaming live sports, for example, and your stream is behind by several seconds and you get an ending spoiled for you. Speaking from personal experience here. The infamous Luka Dončić shot was spoiled for me prematurely due to high latency on my YouTube TV account (thought it was still amazing).
Streaming latency usually hovers between 25-60 seconds. The lower the latency number in that spectrum, the smoother streaming experience you’ll enjoy.
Latency isn’t the only factor when it comes to reliable video streaming, but it’s a simple number we can use to compare the user experience across different wireless networks. You can see in the image below where we find the live latency number while streaming with YouTube TV.
What’s the streaming quality on AT&T’s network?
- Suburban speed test result: 30.33 second latency
- City supermarket speed test result: 48.3 Mbps download speed
- Wilderness speed test result: 53.86 second latency
What are AT&T’s advertised speeds?
YouTube TV requires at least 3 Mbps to stream live TV, but you’ll want at least 12 Mbps to reliably stream in high definition. Per AT&T, 4G users should expect download speeds of 14–61 Mbps on average for the network. We sampled over 150,000 wireless users in 2020, and AT&T averaged a download speed of 28.9 Mbps. For context, AT&T’s data speed average was actually the lowest of the four major networks.
Data speed averages for AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon wireless
With this data in mind, it's fair to assume that AT&T should expect a reliable streaming connection with low levels of latency. Again, the more latency you experience on live TV, the worse your streaming connection. Let’s take a look at how AT&T’s data speeds work in the wild (figuratively and literally speaking) and how that translates to streaming latency.
AT&T streaming quality test
You never know when you might want to crack open a nice episode of The Great British Baking Show on Netflix, so we tested streaming with AT&T in three different locations to test overall streaming quality. This is the latency we experienced in the three different locations.
30.33 second latency
53.86 second latency
Let’s take a closer look at each AT&T speed test.
Streaming test from the suburbs
- Latency: 30.33 seconds
From the suburbs, AT&T maintained a latency of 30.33 seconds, which falls under the “good” end of the latency spectrum. If users can expect 25—60 second latencies while streaming, AT&T falls firmly on the positive end of things. The streaming quality remained smooth while testing, but the latency could still certainly be felt while watching a baseball game. After all, I was still around 30 seconds behind every pitch, which is kind of a lifetime in baseball.
Just out of curiosity, let’s take a look at all three networks side by side, watching the same baseball game on YouTube TV. From top to bottom in the GIF below, it's T-Mobile on top, Verizon in the middle, and AT&T on the bottom.
It’s a race to who can deliver the pitch first and AT&T easily beats out T-Mobile and Verizon. In fact, T-Mobile falls so far behind AT&T in this test that the pitcher is already getting ready to throw the next pitch by the time T-Mobile gives you the first pitch. As far as the suburbs are concerned, AT&T delivers a low latency and high-quality wireless connection.
Speed test from the supermarket
- Latency: 55.54 seconds
As you can tell from the GIF above, Colin Cowherd was stuck in a buffering wheel for a few seconds before he could share his (likely bad) sports takes. The second I started streaming in the halls of the supermarket, the latency steadily climbed until it peaked and 55.54 seconds and the buffering wheel followed shortly thereafter. As for streaming quality, you can see for yourself that’s not the crispest picture you’ve ever seen.
It’s clear that AT&T was affected by the more congested network found in a grocery store, and as a result, the latency increased and the streaming quality decreased. Now, streaming in a grocery store doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but this test is an analog for what it would likely be like to stream in any crowded place—like waiting for your name to be called at the DMV, waiting in line at a theme park, or basically any crowded place where you’d be bored and like to stream Netflix.
Speed test from a hike in the wilderness
- Latency: 53.86 seconds
Apologies for the very shaky hand in the video above, I was simultaneously very tired from hiking up a long hill and I was carrying a progressively more fussy one-year-old. But enough about that! As expected, AT&T’s latency worsened significantly in the wilderness compared to what we experienced in the suburbs. The average latency while streaming in the wilderness was 53.86 seconds, leaving you nearly a full minute behind live TV.
The high latency showed itself in more ways than one—the stream itself took several seconds to start and would buffer every few minutes. It was usable, but far from smooth. Keep that in mind if you’re the type of person who likes unwinding with some TV in your tent at night.
AT&T streaming test takeaways
The big takeaway from this round of AT&T streaming tests is that AT&T’s network can struggle streaming in crowded areas, and more rural areas. Speaking anecdotally as an AT&T user for years, I can reinforce these conclusions as I’ve rarely achieved a reliable streaming connection while outside my home. Our hands-on experience proved that out as AT&T fell behind T-Mobile and (especially) Verizon in every category for our streaming test.
28.73 second latency
33.33 second latency
30.33 second latency
30.57 second latency
29.9 second latency
32.70 second latency
53.86 second latency
Until AT&T improves its network, don’t expect to be able to comfortably stream anywhere relatively off the grid, or anywhere with a bunch of users in a close proximity. Of course, your experience can be different if you’re in a wireless dead spot or basking in the glow of a big 5G antenna, but generally speaking, we found AT&T to struggle streaming outside of the suburbs. That’s not to say that you can’t stream on AT&T, but that you will likely run into high delays due to latency and the maddening buffering wheel.
AT&T data plans
For all its warts, AT&T is still a major wireless network with generally fast download speeds, reliable coverage, and family line discounts. If you’re fed up with your current carrier and want to upgrade to a solid carrier in AT&T, here are the cell phone plans you can choose from.
Has your AT&T streaming experience been totally different than what we describe here? Please let us know in the comments below! We would love to hear your perspective from your part of the country.
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