We recently conducted real-world mobile video streaming tests across the length and breadth of the United States, to see which network provider can truly call itself the king of mobile video streaming. With Netflix releasing binge-worthy shows on a near weekly basis, and 1 billion hours of YouTube consumed per day, consumers are increasingly demanding high definition video content, on the go and without compromise. While network operators claim they support high bandwidth data tasks like video streaming, provided the user has adequate signal strength, in practice, customers are still often frustrated by weak connectivity or sub-par video performance in certain locations.

As independent network benchmarking specialists, we took to the streets (covering over 400,000 miles, all states including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a population base totaling 304 million people, to be precise) to establish what sort of network performance consumers actually experience on their devices, compared to what operators state they are receiving.

We assessed the country’s four major operators: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, and quantified their video streaming capabilities into four categories. We thought about which common occurrences most annoy people when attempting to watch their favorite show on their smartphone or tablet and came up with the following parameters: how quickly it loads, video quality, picture freezing, and the reliability of the stream.

So, how did they get on?

Based on all the data we collected, we found AT&T to be the best all-round network for video streaming performance, as determined by our OneScore ranking methodology. It aced three of the four categories, beating second-place Verizon to the pole position. T-Mobile came in third, despite clocking one category win and Sprint came in last.

The nitty gritty

 In testing, an impressive 98% of videos streamed over AT&T’s network were successfully completed, while videos only froze 0.8% of the time. AT&T also experienced higher quality video playback than its competitors. T-Mobile snatched first place from AT&T for the quickest video loading time at 3.2 seconds. At the other end of the scale, 8.5% of the videos streamed on Sprint’s network failed, while freezing 2% of the time, and loading at an average 3.9 seconds. Firmly in the middle of the pack, Verizon nearly completed 98% of the videos streamed on its network, alongside respectable loading times and video quality playback results.

What the results mean

Mobile video streaming is expected to represent three-quarters of all mobile traffic by 2023. This surge in demand will mean operators like Sprint really need to be upping their game to remain competitive with the likes of AT&T, as customers expect more and more data on the go. Mobile networks are underpinning a revolution in how people consume TV and video, but they are also set to play a fundamental role in other developing industries, too — take autonomous vehicles, for instance.

Intel anticipates that the average fully autonomous car will generate 4,000 GB of data for just one hour of driving a day. Laden with hundreds of on-board cameras and sensors to support V2X communication, self-driving vehicles will instigate a “flood of data” according to Intel’s CEO. To put this in the perspective of today’s data dependency, a typical person’s video, chat and other internet use amount to around 650 MB per day. This is set to reach 1.5 GB per day by 2020, which still pales in comparison to the demands of autonomous vehicles.

This is why our recent real-world testing of mobile video streaming is important not only for today’s consumers expecting to watch their favorite shows on their smartphone or tablet but because it also speaks to a much greater issue facing network operators in the not-so-distant future. Operators like AT&T are putting themselves in a good position to facilitate the demands of an even more data-hungry future, ensuring their network provides fast and reliable connectivity. If others are struggling to meet the needs of today’s consumers, they will have their work cut out when the great “flood of data” hits our shores.

To see further details of our nationwide mobile video streaming test, click here.