Watch out AT&T: Verizon’s new LTE network monster stirs in NYC

AT&T’s(s t) LTE service has been beating Verizon’s 4G network soundly in performance tests — as any Ma Bell marketing exec will tell you if given half a chance — but the days are numbered in which AT&T can claim the title of country’s fastest network. Since the past spring Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) has been planning a new LTE rollout that would put AT&T or any other U.S. carrier’s network speeds to shame. And that network has quietly popped up in New York City.

GigaOM reader and mobile network tracker Milan Milanovic spotted Verizon’s awakening beast in multiple locations in Midtown Manhattan. Milanovic happens to be the type of guy who carries around a handheld spectrum analyzer — and I love him for it — which shows the new LTE signals in the 2.1 GHz Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) band. But you don’t have to own special hardware to see the network in action. The new LTE signals are registering on smartphones that support 4G in that band, such as those working on T-Mobile’s networks, and Milanovic was able to force his Verizon iPhone 5s(s aapl) to connect to it.

Verizon AWS LTE tests

The results, according to Ookla’s Speedtest app, were download connection speeds of 80 Mbps and uplink speeds of 15 Mbps. Verizon is able to achieve this by doubling up on frequencies. It’s deploying its new LTE systems in many markets on a full 40 MHz of spectrum, making the new network twice as powerful as any currently in the U.S. Verizon was able to piece together such a large piece of spectral real estate by buying up all of the cable operators 4G licenses last year.

While 80 Mbps may seem impressive, keep in mind this is a trial network with no commercial users — real-world speeds will be slower once the network is loaded. In fact, it’s actually quite surprising that the Milanovic didn’t clock much faster data rates. A 40-MHz LTE network theoretically supports 150 Mbps on the download, and while hitting that theoretical ceiling is impossible, a single connection on an unloaded network should be getting close to that mark.

Milanovic hypothesized that either Verizon is artificially restricting data rates or that the fiber backhaul connecting the cell site to its network core isn’t yet powerful enough to support these boosted speeds. Both explanations are plausible. Milanovic said he has gotten reports of similar network sightings from other testers in Chicago and Los Angeles, though I wasn’t able to confirm those reports. I reached out to Verizon to ask about the network trials, but I’m still waiting to hear back.

Regardless, when this new network comes online, Verizon will have a powerful weapon to combat AT&T in the 4G wars. AT&T’s current LTE network is averaging 16.7 Mbps, according to PCMag’s most recent tests, and has a theoretical ceiling of 75 Mbps. AT&T, unlike Verizon, doesn’t have the spectrum necessary to build a fatter pipe, at least not in the near term. Once Verizon takes this network live — and hopefully drops its capacity restrictions — we’ll almost certainly be crowning a new 4G speed king.

iPhone screen shots courtesy of Milan Milanovic