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Fastest Mobile Networks Canada 2017

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I'll tell you something new: For the first time in five years of testing, Telus is Canada's Fastest Mobile Network. The third-largest Canadian carrier is now number one with a bullet, winning a tight battle with Bell for overall performance, sweeping the country's major cities and winning our population-weighted Speed Score.

This year was Canada's 150th birthday, and we wanted to give the country a present by delivering our first truly coast-to-coast drive test, covering all 10 provinces. We hit major cities and selected small towns everywhere from St. John's to Victoria, measuring speeds on Bell, Rogers, Telus, Eastlink, Freedom, MTS, and Videotron.

Nationwide Winner: Telus

Bell Rogers Telus
Maximum Download Speed (Mbps) 431.48 375.87 479.94
Average Download Speed (Mbps) 99.03 50.69 102.12
Downloads Above 5Mbps (%) 98% 98% 98%
Maximum Upload Speed (Mbps) 67.38 66.80 66.53
Average Upload Speed (Mbps) 25.47 23.46 28.12
Uploads Over 2Mbps (%) 96% 97% 97%
Average Ping (ms) 44.53 53.75 37.85
Time on LTE (%) 100% 99% 100%
Speed Score (out of 100) 97 85 100

We found significant differences between provinces, and between small towns and big cities. While Telus rules in big cities, Bell dominates midsize Ontario cities and Atlantic Canada, and Videotron still plays well in smaller Quebec cities.

Telus and Bell share most of their radio network. Over the past few years, Telus has evened the score with Bell first by getting access to its Band 7 spectrum in 2015, and then matching it on carrier aggregation this year. The difference between the two networks then becomes their core network design—the lines that come down from the towers, and their connections to the internet. In 2017, it looks like Telus has done a lot of work optimizing its core network in the big cities where the most Canadians live, giving them the fastest possible connections.

Rogers appears to be at least a generation behind Bell and Telus on network technology, and it's dragging Videotron (which shares its network) with it. You can see this by looking at maximum speeds: Bell and Telus frequently have double the maximum speeds Rogers does.

These breathtaking speeds are dependent on current-edge technologies that might not be in your phone, though. To get top speeds on Canadian carriers, you need four-carrier aggregation, 256-QAM encoding, and 4×4 MIMO antennas, which are together called gigabit LTE. Those features are currently available only on the HTC U11, LG V30, Moto Z2 Force, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Samsung Galaxy S8, and Sony Xperia XZ1, although more phones with these features will be coming out later this year. iPhones are likely to be stuck in a slightly slower lane until 2018.

In our US story, we profiled how your phone choice makes a difference on download and upload speeds. You'll see even more dramatic differences in Canada, as these technologies have been more comprehensively rolled out here than in the US.

Great Leaps Forward

Canadian wireless speeds, and LTE availability, have increased by leaps and bounds since our first tests in 2013. And since many Canadians are still on two-year contracts, you may not be aware of the huge changes in networks since 2014.

FMN Canada Speed Chart Max

Rogers was the early leader with LTE in Canada, and its 2011 launch left the other carriers scrambling to catch up. But they did catch up, starting in 2015. Bell's activation of high-speed Band 7 networks in major cities, and its aggressive approach to carrier aggregation (which binds together different bands of spectrum so they appear to be one broad highway), made Bell competitive with Rogers in 2015 and pushed it ahead in 2016. Telus trailed behind for a while, but getting full access to that Band 7, plus a year's worth of network optimization has really helped it in 2017.

All this goes to say that the Canadian carriers are competitive, and living up to their promises when it comes to network rollouts. The state of Canadian LTE is strong. As always, the country's competitive weakness isn't in low quality, but in high prices.

Freedom: The One to Watch

Freedom Wireless, the former Wind Mobile, is the potential game changer in this year's results. Freedom is in the middle of turning on its LTE network, and in Toronto, several southern Ontario cities, and Edmonton, it comes close to matching Rogers' speeds.

Our Freedom results show that its owner, Shaw, still has some work to do. In Toronto, Freedom's 4G LTE network was 10 percent less reliable than Bell's. In Calgary, it was 20 percent less reliable. In Hamilton, it was 30 percent less reliable. Ouch. Most of the time, when our Freedom device fell off of LTE, it didn't lose signal entirely; it reverted to Wind's previous 3G network. But Canadians now expect nearly complete LTE coverage in major cities, and Freedom must deliver.

That said, Freedom is charging half of what the three big networks do for a 6GB plan. If you stay almost entirely in its coverage area (as its most popular $49 plan has voice, but not data, outside its limited range), that's a great deal. Videotron recently sold some more spectrum to Shaw, which (unlike Wind) is a big enough company to actually afford to build out a network. That's very encouraging, and users in those big cities looking for a deal should definitely think of switching to Freedom.

While regional carriers have done very well in our past tests, they just haven't been improving as fast as Bell and Telus have. MTS (now owned by Bell) showed very similar performance to last year, but Bell's average download speeds in Winnipeg tripled thanks to new carrier aggregation technology. In Montreal, Videotron got a little faster, but once again, Bell and Telus got a lot faster. The same story also plays itself out with Eastlink in Nova Scotia.

Where's Unlimited?

There's a revolution sweeping US wireless carriers. It's called unlimited, and our results show that Canada's networks can handle it. Canadian carriers just aren't pressuring each other to go there.

Canada's notoriously high wireless rates haven't changed much over the past year. That's interesting because the competitive landscape has changed. Freedom is much more competitive than Wind was, and MTS's performance is really declining. But that hasn't lowered the Big Three's rates in Calgary, or raised them in Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, in the US, carriers are by and large switching over to unlimited plans. These aren't really unlimited; they start to throttle after 22GB or so. But for $100 to $105 Canadian, US subscribers are getting triple the data the Big Three are offering up north.

The US also has a thriving marketplace of virtual carriers with super-cheap plans for less-heavy users. Canada has, well, Chatr, which is reasonably priced but nowhere near as flexible as US value leaders like US Mobile, Ting, and Twigby.

According to a 2016 CRTC report, wireless prices have been flat or in slight decline in Canada over the past few years, with costs dropping most sharply in Montreal because of an ongoing price war involving the Big Three and Videotron. At the moment, 6GB plans in Quebec are running as low as $49 per month, or half of what they cost in Ontario.

One thing to understand about speed test results is that speed is also a proxy for capacity. Carriers can choose to offer a few users very fast connections, or slow everyone down a bit so they all share.

The stunning speeds that Bell and Telus are showing in major Canadian cities—often double the speeds of US carriers—tell us that their networks have headroom. The price war in Quebec shows that they're willing to lower rates if pushed. The carriers will disagree with both of these assertions, probably citing crowdsourced reports showing that AT&T and Verizon's speeds have declined since the introduction of unlimited plans.

But the story in the US is more complicated than that. First of all, that same report shows Sprint and T-Mobile's speeds continue to rise, even with unlimited plans and T-Mobile's dramatic subscriber growth. AT&T's decline may be thanks to a new discounted plan capped at 3Mbps; Verizon's might come from throttling heavy data users. Our Fastest Mobile Networks drive tests in May, on the other hand, showed that AT&T's and Verizon's uncapped speeds are better, not worse, than last year's.

We respectfully disagree with the carriers that they can't offer bigger, cheaper plans to Canadian consumers. Now, Canada only needs an "un-carrier" to push things forward. Perhaps Freedom is up to the task.

Click through to see our city-by-city winners.

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