With most wireless carriers in the United States providing comparable service offerings (voice, data, unlimited texting, unlimited minutes, etc.), they need to constantly devise new ideas and advantages to maintain a competitive edge, retain current subscribers and attract new customers to their networks. Because these service offerings are so similar, carriers need to focus on improving the quality of their services by expanding and improving networks while understanding and anticipating consumer demand.

As time marches on and technology evolves, and as we approach the inevitable era of 5G, carriers will have to get creative in their approach to the mobile marketplace and focus on differentiating themselves from their competitors. Every carrier offers smartphones and a data plan—with this commonality, what are carriers doing today (and what are they planning for tomorrow) to establish themselves as outright industry leaders and consumer favorites? And how can consumers know if their service offerings are top quality?

Going Where No Carrier Has Gone Before

Coverage is king and for some time Verizon Wireless held the title for most reliable network. However, AT&T is now staking claim to the nation’s most reliable 4G LTE network. Today’s consumers expect to connect to the Internet and use their mobile devices all the time, regardless of location, and it’s frustrating for them when they can’t. While direct competition in these markets is unavoidable, some network carriers are getting creative and going where no others have a presence: to the air. Planning for a late 2015 launch date, AT&T is still aiming to launch its own 4G in-flight broadband service to satisfy frequent flyers travelling across the continental United States. Existing in-flight connectivity is akin to 3G speeds and inconsistent, rendering it capable of only email and basic web browsing. Carriers must be bold and make smart infrastructure expansions to keep an edge over competitors, and AT&T’s plan to aim for the skies is doing just that.

Carriers Amp up Their LTE Networks

Each of the major US carriers has extensive network projects underway, and are actively deploying LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) network features that will result in faster data speeds and improved network capacity beyond the capabilities of LTE networks already in place. For instance: earlier this year, AT&T deployed an LTE-A network in Chicago, while Verizon has been rolling out XLTE networks across the nation, promising faster speeds and greater capacity. In addition, Sprint has been introducing Sprint Spark, resulting in network improvements and further approaching carrier aggregation (an LTE-A feature set that combines spectrum bands).

Carriers have also been actively testing and launching voice over LTE network (VoLTE) service, which promises clear, High-Definition voice calls and quicker connect times when used with compatible mobile phones. Earlier in the year AT&T and T-Mobile launched VoLTE in select markets across the United States, while in September Verizon announced that it had started to roll out service nationwide, on a few select devices. VoLTE service will become much more prevalent in the year ahead as carriers continue to optimize their networks and as more VoLTE compatible phones enter the marketplace.

Wi-Fi Calling Makes a Comeback, and Proves a Differentiator

When service is sparse and cellular reception is poor, it makes sense for carriers to switch voice calls from cellular networks to Wi-Fi networks that have stronger signals. This also makes more efficient use of a cellular network’s available capacity. While Wi-Fi calling is not a new phenomena, recently it’s gained significant attention with the launch of Apple’s iPhone 6 coupled with carriers’ future plans to enable hand offs of live calls between VoLTE and Wi-Fi networks. The key performance differentiator here is that consumers must have a seamless, transparent experience when their device migrates from a cellular network to a Wi-Fi network. To keep up, both Verizon and AT&T are planning to implement their own Wi-Fi calling features in 2015 combined with the rollout of their VoLTE networks while T-Mobile intends to add more features this year to its current Wi-Fi calling service.

Keeping it all in Check

Carriers expanding their networks and upgrading their infrastructure means great news for subscribers, but there is only one true method in knowing whether or not these enhancement programs have any real impact on performance, and that’s through rigorous standardized benchmarking procedures. By routinely testing network performance including before and after upgrades, carriers are able to generate crucial data points and perform a comparative assessment of key quality metrics; all of which allows carriers to measure the effectiveness of current performance including the impact of any network enhancement or upgrade. Without detailed, independent, controlled and published network test results, how are consumers to know which carrier is best for them? How can they make educated decisions without concrete performance data? Benchmarking validates and enables marketing claims and gives consumers the information they need to know which network may be best suited for their needs.

Where Networks Are Going Next

With major wireless providers constantly bidding for consumer attention, from network expansion to new service additions, it’s becoming increasingly clear that major players in the industry are in a constant state of enhancement. What will network providers do next? Full wireless service availability in subway stations and rail routes in major cities? Expanded in-air services for transoceanic routes? It will be exciting to see how wireless providers take on the industry as technology evolves and as all carriers race to the next generation of mobile communications.