AT&T joins the LTE market and challenges Verizon by providing significantly improved download speeds over 3G.

Story highlights

Verizon's LTE network is currently the largest in terms of nationwide coverage

AT&T is set to rival Verizon as it expands its LTE network

Report shows that AT&T's average LTE speeds are better than Verizon's -- at least for now

Sprint will begin rolling out its 4G LTE network in mid to late 2012

CNN  — 

Verizon has been touted as having the biggest, baddest, fastest 4G around. It’s been this way since the carrier debuted its LTE network in late 2010.

But now that AT&T has joined the LTE game, consumers looking for top speeds might consider turning their focus to AT&T instead.

If only for a while.

Metrico Wireless, a firm that does network and mobile device analytics, took a look at 4G LTE service in the U.S., focusing on two of the nation’s largest carriers, Verizon and AT&T.

The company’s latest report shows that AT&T’s average LTE speeds are better than Verizon’s (for now at least), and that LTE provides more than five times the performance of the carriers’ respective 3G offerings.

Metrico used five 4G LTE handsets for its tests: two on AT&T, three on Verizon. On AT&T, the HTC Vivid and Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket were measured. The HTC Thunderbolt, Samsung Droid Charge and Motorola Droid Bionic were tested on Verizon’s network.

In stationary download speeds, AT&T’s 4G LTE handsets outperformed those on Verizon, but Metrico believes this disparity is likely due to the fact that Verizon’s LTE service is more established and has significantly more subscribers using data on it.

Indeed, as of April, Verizon had over half a million LTE subscribers. AT&T, meanwhile, just launched its LTE network in five markets this summer.

But while AT&T’s data speeds were better, web pages actually loaded faster on the three Verizon smartphones tested. “In general, the subscriber experience is not simply driven by the network or the device, but by the combination of the two,” the report states.

“Even devices with similar specifications connected to similar network technologies still demonstrate variation in performance.”

This was especially true with regards to video performance. Of the smartphones tested, the Samsung Droid Charge (on Verizon) consistently yielded the highest frame delivery rate, while the Motorola Droid Bionic (also on Verizon) had the lowest.

Also, if you’re really concerned about web page load times, consider this: All carrier-to-carrier comparisons notwithstanding, both AT&T and Verizon handsets delivered web page load times that were 80 to 85 percent shorter on LTE relative to 3G.

What about battery life on an LTE device, notoriously reported as being poor? Well, depending on how you use your device, you may be able to squeeze out a few more hours, as the report found that battery life was heavily related to app use.

On the AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket, you’re going to get 300 to 350 minutes of use out of your device, whether you’re a power user or someone who’s making calls all day long.

On the Verizon Droid Bionic, though, those who primarily use their phones for voice calling will gain about 150 minutes of usage over those who spend most of their time on Twitter and Facebook.

Verizon’s LTE network is currently the largest in terms of nationwide coverage, but AT&T’s is set to rival it as it expands.

And, indeed, we’re finally beginning to see LTE infrastructure build-outs, industry-wide. Joining Metro PCS, Verizon and AT&T in the LTE game is Cricket Wireless, perhaps best known for its budget mobile phone and prepaid plan options.

Cricket will offer speeds up to 6 Mbps with a 5 GB data cap. Sprint will begin rolling out its 4G LTE network in mid to late 2012.