All four major wireless carriers in the US are constantly flinging claims at you—they're the fastest, the largest, the friendliest, the best. So 10 years ago, we decided to put those claims to the test. Every year since then, with the carriers' cooperation, we strap phones into a set of cars and send them across the country with our staff members behind the wheels, scooping up data for several weeks to see who has the fastest and most reliable smartphone data network.
Verizon had a good run for the past five years with its nationwide LTE network, but AT&T has rocketed into the top spot this year. What the carrier calls 5G Evolution may not be 5G, but it's definitely a stride toward it. The big push to improve its 4G LTE network in preparation for 5G pays off big time for AT&T; it's America's fastest mobile network in 2019.
Our Fastest Mobile Networks tests are more comprehensive than you'll find in other publications, and more transparent than the consulting firms the carriers use for a lot of their ads. We're beholden to you, not to them. This year, we drove through 30 cities and 25 states, running 60,000 speed tests to determine the fastest mobile network nationwide. Using Samsung Galaxy S10 phones, we ran tests every two minutes and summarized the results across six different categories. You can see more about this in our Testing Methodology section.
2019 Results at a Glance
Our awards balance speed and reliability, and for 10 years, the winner has flipped between AT&T and Verizon. T-Mobile spent a few years getting really fast, but never quite matched up to Verizon on coverage and reliability.
Although it's always been strong in some parts of the country (mostly the Southeast), AT&T seems to have backed away from being a smartphone-focused carrier over the past few years. Its phone subscriptions have been flat or slightly declining since 2015, while its number of connected non-phone subscribers, with gadgets like smart cars, has skyrocketed, as you can see in the charts below from Statista.
But AT&T needs 5G, for a lot of reasons. And it turns out that a key step toward 5G requires improving your 4G network. AT&T's initial 5G network uses short-distance millimeter wave airwaves, so to prevent its 5G customers from feeling like they're falling off a cliff where there's no 5G service, it needed to turn up the quality of its 4G. And so it did.
AT&T has also secretly been helped by improvements in smartphone modems over the past two years. Wireless spectrum forms the lanes on which all smartphone traffic travels, and AT&T has more LTE spectrum than T-Mobile or Verizon, according to Fierce Wireless. But AT&T's spectrum is typically highly fragmented, coming in many small pieces rather than a few large chunks. New modems are better able to aggregate a lot of small channels into one fast connection, which is working to AT&T's advantage.
You can experience AT&T's best-in-class network through a few different companies, and our readers like some of them more than the mainline AT&T brand. Our Readers' Choice awards rate wireless carriers based on a survey of what readers think about factors including price, phone selection, and customer service. Consumer Cellular, which uses AT&T's network, ranked at the top this year, with spectacular ratings for low prices and customer service. Cricket, which is owned by AT&T and uses AT&T's network, also ranked higher than its parent company. You can explore what our readers think of their carriers here.
Where's the 5G?
We've been testing wireless networks for 10 years, and they keep getting better. AT&T's win doesn't mean that T-Mobile or Verizon have worse networks than last year—all four major networks improved on both speed and reliability. It's just that AT&T improved more than the others.
This will be our last 4G-only test, since 5G isn't quite ready for testing (or for widespread usage) this year. Each of the four carriers has announced very limited coverage in a few cities. The 5G situation is changing fast, so we're tracking it monthly with our Race to 5G, and you can find out more in our story on the current state of 5G.
But the vast majority of people will be using 4G for several years to come. Only 14 million Americans will have 5G by the end of 2020—that's compared with 400 million wireless connections in the US in 2017. So although 5G gets a lot of buzz, and it's fun to talk about, 4G is how you're going to be getting your mobile internet for years to come.
Regional and National Winners
Nationwide Winner: AT&T
For the first time in five years, AT&T is the nation's fastest mobile network. AT&T won or tied in 15 of our 30 cities, along with winning or tying in every rural region. The carrier has always had great coverage, but its 5G Evolution upgrades this year helped it vault upward in terms of download speeds, breaking through most especially in the western US.
Verizon, the previous longtime winner, continued to be strong in the Northeast, winning or tying 12 cities or regions. T-Mobile took seven awards, and Sprint got one win and a tie. Sprint had the best download speeds in nine cities, though; it just kept getting dinged on the other parts of our scoring algorithm.
There's always a weird one like this. Verizon won or tied four of our six Northeast awards, AT&T won or tied two, and T-Mobile won one, but when we averaged all of the scores out, AT&T won. This is largely because when Verizon won, it did so by small amounts, but AT&T's win in Philadelphia was far more commanding than any of the other differences between scores. So the big win in Philly more than balanced out small losses elsewhere.
That said, as you can see, it's nearly a tie between AT&T and Verizon. Verizon won more cities by smaller amounts. Verizon did better in Connecticut and New Jersey; AT&T did better in Virginia.
This one divided pretty neatly geographically. Traveling through the Carolinas, AT&T owns the place, no question. But when we got to Florida, T-Mobile was better. In Georgia, well, Verizon won in Atlanta, and Sprint had the highest download speeds throughout the state. Averaging all of this out had our T-Mobile results come out slightly higher largely because of better upload speeds.
North Central: AT&T
AT&T won three cities in this region, T-Mobile won two, and Verizon won one, with AT&T coming out on top at the end. T-Mobile's win in Chicago largely came from the fact that we hit a T-Mobile LAA site, a high-speed urban technology designed to speed up connections in crowded downtowns, stadiums, and other similar areas. If we hadn't stumbled upon that, we probably would have seen a situation where AT&T was better in the southern part of this coverage area and Verizon better in the northern part.
South Central: Verizon
AT&T is based in Dallas, but Verizon takes this one (and took Dallas). Verizon won three cities in this region and AT&T won three, so Verizon got the region through having a somewhat larger margin in its wins. Texas is an absolute hotbed of 5G activity, with AT&T running 5G networks in four cities, Verizon and Sprint each in two, and T-Mobile in one. All of the carriers are frantically upgrading their networks.
This year, you may notice, we went to San Antonio instead of Austin. We alternate those two cities from time to time, but it definitely factored in that Austin has been dragging its feet on 5G; the city may lose its primacy as a tech hub if other nearby cities develop better networks.
AT&T won or tied three of our awards here, Verizon won two, Sprint won or tied two, and T-Mobile tied one. In terms of tech hubs, AT&T had the best performance in Seattle, while Verizon took the award for the San Francisco Bay Area.
Verizon might have won overall except that we had a very tough time with it in Salt Lake City, where its network struggled on multiple devices. AT&T also had the best coverage in our rural drives, although we saw some stretches where no carrier worked at all; if you're going into the mountains, make sure to take a satellite locator.
AT&T swept this region of the country (Verizon tied in one city), which cemented its nationwide win.
For this year's Fastest Mobile Networks testing, we used custom field test software designed by Ookla, the creator of Speedtest.net. (Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag.com's parent company.) The software was loaded onto sets of four Samsung Galaxy S10 series phones, chosen because they can access the latest network upgrades on all the major wireless carriers. Three sets of phones were driven around the country in rental cars—one down the East Coast, one down the center of the country, and one down the West Coast.
The software runs tests every two minutes. We used Ookla's default server selection methodology, which finds the nearest, fastest server in the company's comprehensive network. Over the course of driving, we tested downloads from 459 different servers, executing about 60,000 test runs.
We stopped at between 12 and 20 locations, for at least 15 minutes each, in our 30 cities. We averaged the data in each location, then averaged the locations together for an overall city result. The aggregated data from traveling between the test locations counted into the overall averages as two more locations. As we are testing LTE networks, we did not average in speeds on non-LTE networks. If a phone dropped off an LTE network, it was treated as if the test failed.
Along with our 30 cities, we report suburban/rural areas, which are summaries of the drives between the metro areas. Our six regional scores are averages of the five cities in each region, plus the suburban/rural score. Our national score is an average of the 30 cities and six suburban/rural regions.
We tested mostly during business hours, from May 7 through June 1, 2019. We visited different cities on different days.
The PCMag Speed Score
The PCMag Speed Score is a weighted average that looks at six components of the mobile data experience.
We tweaked the speed score a little this year. Our score takes into account downloads, uploads, latency, reliability, and consistency. It splits evenly into 50 percent raw speed, and 50 percent reliability/consistency. But as most people think of speed in terms of average download speed, we increased the proportion for download speed from 20 to 30 percent, slightly de-emphasizing latency instead.
Since most mobile internet usage is web page downloads or small-screen video streaming, it's just as important to have a consistent experience as a fast one. Smartphone users may not be able to see the difference between 20Mbps and 100Mbps, but they can definitely feel the difference between 2Mbps and 5Mbps. So we created a "threshold score" showing the percentage of downloads over 5Mbps, and the percentage of uploads over 2Mbps.
To create our reliability score, we counted the number of tests and divided by the number of non-zero LTE uploads and downloads. Stalled tests, or areas without LTE coverage, received reduced scores.
Here's how it all comes together:
Crowdsourcing vs. Drive Testing
There are a lot of "fastest" awards out there. They're all correct, according to their own testing and methodology, and they all have something interesting to say.
In testing, the main division is between crowdsourcing and drive testing. Crowdsourcing, which is done by Nielsen, Ookla Speedtest, and OpenSignal, relies on users to run speed tests on their own devices. With a big enough crowd, you can get a good picture of a network.
Crowdsourcing is always happening, so it's up to the minute. And it uses a great range of devices, so you can tell the difference between them. We use Ookla's crowdsourced data in our analysis showing how newer phones are faster than older phones, for instance.
But crowdsourced apps often can't tell whether a test is indoors or outdoors, which makes for very different results. They may not do a good job of finding dead zones if their users don't run tests in places that obviously have no signal. They may have bigger crowds with some carriers, or in some cities. And they leave open the possibility that people using one carrier might be using better phones, in better weather, on a less congested day, than people on another carrier.
Drive testing is what we do, along with Root Metrics and P3. Drive testing lets us compare carriers using the same device, in the same place, at the same time. This way we can eliminate variables and map out coverage on our route. It lets us make sure we have as much data as we want in each city, so we feel confident in our results.
But drive testing takes enough work that it isn't happening continuously in every city. It won't show you the performance of phones you don't drive with. And it can only cover the routes you drive along.
Methodology-wise, we balance six different elements for our speed score. Other studies may focus on downloads, or use a different measurement of latency, or (in Nielsen's case) attempt to measure the speeds coming into various mobile apps. We think our balance makes the most sense, but we also respect the different decisions others have made.
So What About 5G?
We are not crowning a best 5G network this year, and feel strongly that anyone who tries to do so is premature.
5G is launching right now. The map above shows where the four major carriers have announced 5G plans for this year, but the truth is both more and less than you're seeing on there. AT&T and Verizon are both launching in many cities, but they're currently covering very small areas of those cities—Verizon is focusing on less than two square miles of Chicago, for instance. Sprint's network covers more ground, but is very patchy.
Right now, there just isn't enough 5G to test, and it isn't in good enough shape. New software releases are delivering upgrades nearly every week. Coming back to Chicago two months in a row, I saw the speeds on Verizon's 5G network double. The situation is wildly unstable and evolving rapidly. We're following it monthly on our Race to 5G page.
The current 5G phones also won't support the way networks will evolve over the next year. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon intend to enhance their fast, but very limited range millimeter wave 5G with low-band 5G. No device supports that technology yet; the first ones are coming out late this fall. If Sprint merges with T-Mobile, it will get access to both millimeter wave and low-band, but its existing 5G phone and hotspot don't support those technologies.
That all leaves 5G in a very experimental mode over the next few months. We're going to test 5G pretty frequently over that time, but it's more from a perspective of how the technology is developing than whether you should buy a 5G device right now. Take a look at our most recent coverage of each of the four carriers' 5G networks:
The Past Describes the Future
Looking at the history of 4G over 10 years of Fastest Mobile Networks, we can see where 5G will be going. This year, carriers averaged around 60Mbps down, with peak speeds over 300Mbps.
Our Fastest Mobile Networks chart from 2011 shows how far the 4G systems have come. Over 10 years, average speeds have increased around 7x and peak speeds have climbed more like 17x. We're going to see dramatic changes at least as quickly with 5G.
Now, 5G is already starting out pretty well. We saw 1.18Gbps on Verizon's network and over 1Gbps on AT&T's. But I'm not going to make any charts comparing 4G and 5G in here because most of my AT&T results were in a two-block radius of Dallas. Two blocks! We need some coverage; then we'll talk.
5G is also going to move that conversation away from pure speed and more to different kinds of experiences that we're going to need to figure out how to test over the next few years. For one thing, the three different forms of 5G (low-band, mid-band, and millimeter wave) have dramatically different speeds and coverage. Some of the differences there will get smoothed out when phones can combine 4G and 5G for a more seamless experience, a feature that's coming soon. But average speeds across a city will be less meaningful when you're getting 2Gbps downtown but 200Mbps in the suburbs.
Some of 5G's strengths can't be captured in download and upload speeds at all. One of the technology's most promising aspects is network slicing, which gives some applications a higher guaranteed quality of service for mission-critical work. Latency will also become more important if 5G developers, as anticipated, start building a lot of AR and VR applications.
There's a huge amount of promise in 5G, but in 2019, it's just promise. Keep an eye on our Race to 5G series to see how that promise develops.
Why Your Phone Matters
If you aren't seeing the increasing speeds we're reporting in this story, take a look at your phone. Older phones, and most iPhones, don't support the latest network technologies, which means they may be stuck in a slow lane when newer phones zip along.
This isn't a new story; it's been the case for years. Every year, carriers add a new twist to their networks—it might be new lanes of wireless spectrum, or a more complex way of encoding their communications. That's how they've achieved the increasing speeds we've seen year over year.
This year, we used the Samsung Galaxy S10 as our test device. The Galaxy S10 has the newest Qualcomm X24 modem, which supports all of the LTE technologies deployed by all of the US carriers. The S10 is also available on all four carriers, letting us use the same state-of-the-art-phone for every network. We took a close look at the Galaxy S10's performance in an exclusive analysis by Cellular Insights.
AT&T's win this year comes from its 5G Evolution project, which enhances its network with better carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO antenna usage, and 256 QAM encoding. The other carriers have also done these things already, or in the case of Sprint, they're working on them.
So there's a big difference in performance between phones that support those three features, and phones that don't. The easiest way to find a phone that can get into the fast lane is to look for one with "gigabit LTE." That means devices like the Galaxy S8 or higher, the LG G7 or higher, the OnePlus 7 Pro, or the Google Pixel 3.
Of iPhones, only the XS and the XS Max have gigabit LTE. Yes, that's right—not the iPhone XR, X, 8, or 7. Only the XS and XS Max will be able to get the best performance on AT&T's upgraded LTE network.
According to Ookla Speedtest Intelligence, that makes a noticeable difference, especially on AT&T's network. iPhone XS Max devices on AT&T got an average of 47.08Mbps down in Ookla's crowdscourced tests in May, as compared with 40.56Mbps on iPhone X devices. That's a 15-percent drop from the newest models to the previous year's! (Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag.com's parent company.)
Join the Band
Two other capabilities can really change your online experience. The Galaxy S10 has both of them, which is part of why we used it as our test phone.
If you're in a dense city, you'll want LAA, or Licensed Assisted Access. LAA uses the same airwaves as Wi-Fi, in very dense areas, to boost LTE speeds. We saw the effect of LAA on our T-Mobile tests in Chicago, where we got more than 600Mbps results just south of Guaranteed Rate Park. For LAA, you need a phone with a Qualcomm X16 or later modem such as the Galaxy S8 or later, or the iPhone XS or XS Max.
If you're on T-Mobile, you need Band 71, also known as 600MHz or Extended Range LTE. A lot of T-Mobile's new coverage, especially throughout the middle of the country, is dependent on this new frequency band, but most iPhones don't support it. If you have an iPhone, you need an XS, XS Max, or XR to be able to get the new coverage. T-Mobile has a full list of Band 71-compatible phones on its site.
Should You Buy a 5G Phone?
If you buy a 5G phone today, you'll also get the latest and greatest 4G speeds. But you won't necessarily get the 5G technologies best suited for the future. So think of today's 5G phones as excellent 4G devices with a bit of a 5G boost.
Next year, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon will all be introducing low-band 5G, which will have 4G-like coverage at speeds 50 percent or more faster than 4G. The first round of 5G phones doesn't support low-band. For that technology, you need to wait for phones with the Qualcomm X55 modem, coming late this fall.
10 Years of Fastest Mobile Networks
"It's a boom time for 3G. Where Americans were once happy with hotspots, now they're demanding to be connected anywhere—whether it's with their smartphones, iPads, or laptops. And 3G is beginning to turn into 4G, as wireless carriers start to install faster technologies that can match or beat many home Internet connections."
I said that in 2010 at the beginning of our Fastest Mobile Networks project. Back then, there was no Instagram (October 2010) or Snapchat (September 2011), never mind Music.ly/TikTok (August 2014). Netflix didn't have original shows (2013) and Waze wasn't part of your Google Maps (2013). Spotify wasn't in the US (2012), and we were a long way from Apple Music (2015).
All of those applications were part of the 4G revolution. Over the next 10 years, we're probably going to see a similar or even greater shift in the world as 5G comes to the fore. Our past 10 years of Fastest Mobile Networks ratings give us some hints to how the world will change over the next 10 years.
Our testing has changed over the past 10 years, too. We started out with laptop cards and a PowerShell script. In 2011, we switched to Android phones with Sensorly's test software. We moved to Ookla Speedtest software in 2016, and have stuck with the Android devices. (Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag.com's parent company.) Our project remains, by far, the biggest test that any organization like ours does. We run tens of thousands of speeds tests for results you won't find anywhere else.
Here's what 10 years of upload and download speeds look like. Note that Verizon got 4G LTE in 2011, AT&T got it in 2012, and Sprint and T-Mobile got it in 2013. Before that, Verizon results are for 3G CDMA, AT&T for HSPA, Sprint for WiMAX, and T-Mobile for HSPA.
So years one through four of the cycle, 2010 to 2013, are all about setting up the network. The system is already faster than what came before, but maybe not to a transformative level. Still, the folks who are developing apps for it are coming up with some great ideas. They just might not be widespread yet.
In years five through seven, from 2014 to 2016, things really started to take off. Consistent average speeds really accelerated, coverage spread, and competition increased—this is the period when T-Mobile started to expand its coverage and became a really aggressive competitor. With a more mature technology, you might see new entrants in the industry, and new applications are changing the way people live.
After 2016, speeds went through the roof. 4G LTE is a mature technology now and able to deliver broadband speeds to most people who connect to it.
AT&T and Verizon have won our overall national award every year since 2010. They're the biggest nationwide carriers, after all. But there have been dramatic stories for all of the carriers over the past 10 years.
Verizon has made its name on network quality, and it has been the fastest network most years. Early on, Verizon tended to win because it built out more 4G, faster than the competition. It got socked one year because of the massive traffic from a lot of new iPhone owners joining the network, but it figured things out. Network-wise, you can never go wrong with Verizon.
AT&T's decade has been a rollercoaster ride. It got off to a strong start with a combination of faster 3G than Verizon had and a growing 4G network, but then seemed to lose focus as it shifted its interest from smartphones to connected devices and smart cities. AT&T roared back this year with a 5G Evolution strategy that prepares for 5G by really amping up the 4G network. We'll see if it can handle any resulting onslaught of new smartphone users.
T-Mobile has always been fast; its challenge has been coverage. The company started out as basically a city-only carrier, but bought 600MHz and 700MHz wireless spectrum to cover rural areas. We did a map in 2017 to show T-Mobile's huge growth over the past four years; it's now a genuinely nationwide competitor. But after placing a very strong second on speed over the past two years, T-Mobile isn't advancing as fast as AT&T is.
Sprint really struggled until it turned on its Spark network in 2016 and 2017. Look at the upload and download lines for Sprint between 2017 to 2019. Downloads shoot up—and upload speeds actually reduce. That's because Spark, unlike other networks, lets Sprint devote much more spectrum to downloads than uploads, optimizing itself for download speeds.
5G Is Coming
Let's now look at Strategy Analytics' predictions for 5G connections between now and 2025.
Right now, it's 2010 in the 5G world. Through 2022, we're going to see people mostly relying on 4G, as they did on 3G and HSPA up until 2013 or so. Developers will start coming up with cool concepts in the next few years; some of them will be the next Instagram or Snapchat, but they won't really take off until 2023 to 2025, the period of widespread consumer adoption.
And in another 10 years from now, who knows where we'll be?
For a much more in-depth tour through the years, check out our history of Fastest Mobile Networks coverage:
Atlanta is a highly competitive city: AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon have all announced it's getting 5G soon, and the winner here has changed hands several times over the course of our testing. This year, it's Verizon, with spectacularly high average speeds at many of our test locations; AT&T seemed to be suffering from congestion issues.
Verizon maxed out about 200Mbps at five of our 13 test sites, while AT&T really struggled at five different sites, including Brookwood and Little Five Points. T-Mobile did very well on downloads all across the metro area, but suffered from some cases of blocked uploads.
See our 13 test locations in Atlanta on the map below:
Verizon won Baltimore again by delivering on almost all of our metrics: It has the fastest downloads, the fastest uploads, and the lowest latency, for the fastest overall experience. AT&T came in second, as it did last year, by delivering an even more consistent experience; while Verizon hit a few slow spots, every single one of our AT&T tests in Baltimore came out over 5Mbps.
Baltimore isn't on any carrier's list of the first round of 5G cities, but that's OK; the 5G phones you'll probably want won't be out until 2020 anyway. Still, though, that's a retreat from Baltimore's historic position as one of the first cities to get 4G, back in 2008 with Sprint.
See our 13 test locations in Baltimore on the map below:
T-Mobile won in Boston for a second year not because of spectacular download speeds, but because of a very well-balanced network. Verizon actually scored higher on downloads than T-Mobile did, but T-Mobile did better with uploads, latency, and even reliability. Verizon's network choked up on our test in West Roxbury, making some of the difference there.
Boston will be getting 5G from Verizon later this year, but we don't know more details than that. Given that Verizon is primarily using short-range millimeter wave 5G this year, it will probably be installed downtown and on the university campuses before anywhere else.
See our 12 test locations in Boston on the map below:
Everybody in the Carolinas should have AT&T. That's been the case for the past several years, and I don't think that's likely to change. AT&T leapt ahead of its competitors this year, showing an average download speed that's double (!) what we saw from the other carriers.
Now, that's not to say that T-Mobile and Verizon customers are having lousy experiences. 40Mbps down with nearly 100 percent reliability in our drives around Charlotte isn't bad at all. But AT&T is clearly best positioned for the 5G revolution here. The company has already launched its 5G network for enterprise and developer use in Charlotte. We expect it will become public soon, and it will be joined by Verizon's 5G network later this year.
Sprint's results in Charlotte are characteristic of the unevenness of its network right now. Sprint had the fastest maximum speed, at nearly 300Mbps down, but also the lowest average speed. Its problem is extreme variability: really fast download speeds right in the middle of Uptown, for instance, but really slow speeds down at South Park. This is where Sprint's and T-Mobile's argument to merge becomes salient: Sprint's high peaks with T-Mobile's generally strong availability would be a killer combination.
See our 12 test locations in Charlotte on the map below:
This one's an interesting story. Chicago is an absolute hotbed of new network technologies. One of the hottest is LAA, which uses the same frequencies Wi-Fi is on to accelerate 4G LTE performance. LAA is a very short-range technology—only a block or so—so it's used at tourist hotspots, sports stadia, and other places that need a lot of capacity. I've seen Verizon LAA by the Art Institute, and AT&T LAA in the South Loop.
Our driver's somewhat random route through Chicago stumbled onto a pocket of T-Mobile LAA, just south of the hideously renamed "Guaranteed Rate Park." I triple-checked, and yes, that 648Mbps result is real. That's the kind of thing you get when standing near an LAA cell.
Without the LAA involved, or if we had hit AT&T and Verizon LAA as well, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon would basically be in a three-way tie in Chicago, which is also my experience testing there—all three carriers are competing very aggressively. That's great for folks in the Windy City.
Chicago is one of Verizon's first two 5G launch markets. We've tested Verizon 5G in Chicago twice now, and have gotten speeds over 1Gbps, although with only about 500-foot range from the cell sites. Check out our more in-depth analysis of Verizon 5G in Chicago.
AT&T has also said it's coming to Chicago with 5G, and we expect performance will be a lot like Verizon's, but we'll see. Sprint will be bringing its longer-range but somewhat lower-speed 5G to Chicago this summer; see our results in Dallas for analysis of how that system works.
See our 16 test locations in Chicago on the map below:
Dallas is the most competitive 5G city in the nation; it's the only place where all four major carriers have announced 5G plans, and AT&T and Sprint have already launched there to some extent. We tested AT&T's system at Klyde Warren Park (it's fast, but with poor range) and Sprint's system in Irving (which is slower, but has better range).
In terms of 4G in Dallas, though, Verizon took the lead in our testing. Verizon had the highest download speeds by a long shot, including the highest peak speeds. I'm pretty sure that in Deep Ellum, we encountered a technology called LAA, which uses the same airwaves as Wi-Fi to greatly enhance speeds. LAA is most common in places with very high peak usage, and Deep Ellum definitely counts. None of the other carriers had particularly good performance there.
The Metroplex is extremely large, and we couldn't cover all of it. We did dip into Irving to see if Sprint's network improvements around its 5G launch made a difference, and they did. Sprint was faster in areas where it has announced 5G coverage (Irving and North Dallas) than in areas where it hasn't, which is encouraging for customers as it spreads 5G around the area.
See our 13 test locations in Dallas on the map below:
Verizon came through as Denver's fastest network with an all-around fast, reliable experience. As we saw in a bunch of other cities, Sprint had the fastest download speeds in Denver. But it fell below Verizon's level on reliability, which made the difference in our scoring.
We saw faster speeds toward the northern part of the Denver metro area as opposed to the six tests we took south of 6th Avenue. Our fastest spot was near Broadway and W 11th Avenue, where all of the carriers did well; as we got farther south, speeds declined.
Verizon has said it's going to install 5G in Denver later this year. Since Verizon is using millimeter wave technology, you're most likely to see it in the dense sections around downtown.
See our 15 test locations in Denver on the map below:
AT&T won our tests in Houston because of its solidly reliable network.
T-Mobile would have won Houston, except that we were seeing coverage problems and blocked connections all day. We couldn't nail them down to one location; we saw them in downtown Houston and Montrose, and all the way out east at NASA. That really impacted T-Mobile's reliability score, which outweighed its higher speeds.
Reliability and consistency matter a lot; that's why, together, they're 50 percent of our score. In Houston, AT&T and Verizon were noticeably more reliable than their two smaller competitors, and AT&T was noticeably faster than Verizon.
Houston is going to see some major 5G competition in the near future. Sprint just launched 5G there, and both AT&T and Verizon will likely have public 5G launches within the next few months. Since 5G launches also tend to come with 4G improvements, we're hoping this will boost the speed and reliability of all the networks in Houston.
See our 14 test locations in Houston on the map below:
Indianapolis has been one of AT&T's test cities for 5G, and it's where we saw the first-ever live 5G test with an AT&T hotspot. AT&T's 5G Evolution upgrades to its 4G network have really paid off here, delivering the highest upload and download speeds across all the carriers.
Sprint's performance was characteristic of its strengths and weaknesses nationwide: It has really good download speeds, at the expense of upload speeds and latency, and it isn't quite as reliable as the other networks. Sprint could use some of T-Mobile's stolid reliability to shore up its network.
See our 16 test locations in Indianapolis on the map below:
T-Mobile did very well in our tests across Florida. In the Jacksonville area, which includes nearby beaches, T-Mobile had the fastest download and upload speeds, making it the clear winner in Duval County.
But the real story here is how Jacksonville is lagging on some of the bigger carriers' network upgrades that we're seeing in larger cities. AT&T hasn't vaulted to the speeds we saw in the Carolinas, for instance, and Verizon really dragged. Looking more closely at our results, speeds in downtown Jacksonville lagged while the outlying areas did better. That tells me the city as a whole needs some capacity upgrades.
AT&T has Jacksonville on its 5G city list, so we may see better performance there soon.
See our 14 test locations in Jacksonville on the map below:
Kansas City: T-Mobile
We hit Kansas City during Pride, which happened to coincide with massive flooding and tornadoes. So we had to work around some flooded streets and roadblocks, and it was a good way to test the networks in tough conditions.
We saw good speeds and surprisingly high reliability, on a weekend when I would have thought networks would have been overloaded or down. T-Mobile did the best overall. Although it didn't have the highest download or upload speeds in isolation, it balanced our criteria of downloads, uploads, latency, and reliability best.
Kansas City is Sprint's hometown, and it's one of the places where Sprint ended up punished a little by our scoring algorithm. Sprint had the best download speeds in Kansas City, hands down. But Sprint pours all of its effort into download speeds and not into the other aspects of the online experience, like uploads and latency. That pulls down its score a bit in our overall ranking.
Sprint has 5G in Kansas City now, which will push its download speeds even higher; Verizon says it's bringing 5G to Kansas City by the end of the year.
See our 12 test locations in Kansas City on the map below:
Las Vegas: AT&T
AT&T was the fastest network in Las Vegas this year thanks to consistently strong results across all of our tests. While Sprint had the highest download speeds in Las Vegas, AT&T delivered the cocktail of speed and reliability that smartphone users need to feel confident.
For a city with a T-Mobile arena, T-Mobile did not do well here. While it got high peak and average speeds, its network would sometimes wobble, even in areas where some of the test results we were getting were fast. For instance, in the southwest valley, we got a string of super-fast results on T-Mobile—200Mbps and up—and then a string of blocked connections, even to the same server. That hurt T-Mobile's reliability score.
T-Mobile and Verizon both plan to launch 5G in Las Vegas in 2019.
See our 12 test locations in Las Vegas on the map below:
Los Angeles: AT&T
This is a big one: AT&T took the win away from Verizon in Los Angeles, and second place goes to…Sprint? Sprint actually had the fastest download speeds in LA by a long shot, but in its typical pattern, it wasn't quite as reliable as AT&T and didn't have our other components of network excellence in order.
AT&T pulled ahead of T-Mobile and Verizon on every measure in our tests across LA. In a city of content creators, upload speeds are important, and AT&T's balance of uploads and downloads was the best available.
Three carriers have said they're bringing 5G to LA soon: AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. Sprint's form of 5G will likely be the most exciting, because it will be able to cover actual territory in a sprawling metro area. AT&T may be restricted to smaller, denser areas because it's using millimeter wave spectrum.
See our 16 test locations in Los Angeles on the map below:
T-Mobile continues to do well in Miami, as it did last year. The carrier achieved Miami's fastest network by a landslide, with by far the best average downloads and uploads.
Just like in Jacksonville, the big story here isn't how fast T-Mobile is, but how AT&T's and Verizon's network upgrades don't seem to have hit South Florida. The maximum speeds we saw on those networks (especially Verizon's) were much, much lower than we saw in other cities.
Sprint really struggled with consistency in Miami, with only 65 percent of its downloads faster than 5Mbps. All of the carriers except T-Mobile had trouble on the bay islands and the west side of Miami Beach; the difference at those two spots made a lot of the difference in our reliability results. While not a lot of people live on the bay islands, lots of people need to use GPS apps on the causeways.
See our 12 test locations in Miami on the map below:
Minneapolis is one of Verizon's first two 5G launch cities, and the company has really enhanced its network in the Twin Cities. Verizon had noticeably better download and upload speeds in Minneapolis than any of its competitors, and that was a pretty consistent result across the whole city.
T-Mobile also did very well, though, and would have done even better if it wasn't for one slow spot in the Holland neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis. Slow spots count, though! Take a look at those "downloads above 5Mbps" numbers, which reflect whether we hit any slow spots—only Verizon avoided slow spots entirely.
Currently, Verizon only covers downtown Minneapolis with 5G, an outcome of its using very fast, but limited range millimeter wave spectrum for 5G. We think the gigabit speeds promised by 5G will stay in a limited area of town. But that doesn't matter if you're choosing a carrier here—as Verizon is the right choice no matter what, you can sign up with confidence that you'll be able to upgrade to 5G when it's right for you.
AT&T also says it will bring 5G to Minneapolis soon.
See our 16 test locations in Minneapolis on the map below:
New Orleans: Verizon
Verizon won New Orleans by leading on every one of our measures: downloads, uploads, and latency. It's clear that this year, at least, Verizon Wireless is the fastest network in southern Louisiana.
It probably won't surprise you that we got some of our fastest overall speeds in the French Quarter, just across the river (served by the same towers) and in Metairie. It probably also won't surprise you that we got some of our slowest speeds in the Ninth Ward. Sprint had great variability in New Orleans, and I can't figure out why—it was very slow on our Gretna and Uptown tests, and fast in Algiers and Metairie.
AT&T says it has a 5G network for enterprise and developer use in the New Orleans area, but we didn't see the dramatic increase in download speeds here that we've seen in some other AT&T 5G-ready cities. It looks like there's still work to do.
See our 16 test locations in New Orleans on the map below:
New York City
New York City: Verizon
New York is Verizon country. The nation's biggest wireless carrier is headquartered just outside of town, and it's always had a top-notch presence in the nation's biggest city. This year, we tested in four of the five boroughs and found that our results mirrored what a lot of our New Yorker friends think: it's Verizon, followed by T-Mobile, AT&T, and then Sprint.
Verizon scored one of the fastest overall average speeds nationwide in New York, with 96.6Mbps down on average. AT&T had a very inconsistent experience, with very fast spots (such as 126Mbps down outside our offices in the Union Square district) flanked by slow ones (such as 6.5Mbps down in neighboring Chelsea). Sprint was even more wobbly, with gigantic peaks but the highest count of downloads below 5Mbps.
The fastest spot we encountered was on the south side of Union Square near New York University, and I understand why: It's at the junction of two major streets and by a popular park, where all four carriers expect heavy usage and so they've set up plenty of cell sites with great backhaul.
Last year, we anticipated Sprint and T-Mobile would be running 5G networks in NYC by the time of our testing. We were a little bit off; they're launching in June, in the gap between when we're writing and publishing this story. We tested T-Mobile's 5G network in midtown Manhattan and saw results pushing 500Mbps. A Verizon exec said the carrier is launching 5G in New York in the "very near future," and with more available spectrum than T-Mobile, it might be even faster.
See our 15 test locations in New York City on the map below:
Oklahoma City: AT&T
We hit Oklahoma City during some extreme weather. Flooding had closed off many streets, and we ended our testing early because we were told to get inside. But we ran enough tests to determine that AT&T had the best results, followed very closely by T-Mobile.
Maybe Oklahomans don't think of switching to T-Mobile because of its history of not covering the region well, but the carrier's coverage here has advanced by leaps and bounds since it turned on its low-band 600MHz system last year. For example, without 600MHz, there's a big coverage hole around Woodward; that goes away when you add the new frequency band. You need the right phone to see the new coverage, though.
Sprint's low score here is in part because we had a lot of trouble uploading files over its network. Most smartphone use downloads, not uploads, but uploads are part of every web page request, and consistently slow upload performance can lead to a stalled online experience.
AT&T says it has a 5G network for enterprise and developer use in Oklahoma City at the moment. The upgrades needed to turn that network on were probably what helped boost it into the lead here.
See our 12 test locations in Oklahoma City on the map below:
AT&T took the crown away from T-Mobile in Philadelphia. AT&T's average download speeds in Philly more than tripled (!) this year with the addition of its new 5G Evolution technologies. Make sure to get one of the latest phones if you want to tap into the insane capacity that AT&T seems to have deployed in the City of Brotherly Love.
My diagnosis for T-Mobile's fall: Congestion. While T-Mobile's download speeds increased this year, its upload speeds actually declined, which may mean that there were too many people trying to post selfies of the Liberty Bell.
Sprint's performance follows a now familiar pattern: great download speeds but lagging on all of our other indicators. Sprint's highly asymmetrical network is great for streaming and downloading, but not so great if you want to post anything.
Those AT&T speeds really broke through. The carrier exceeded 200Mbps at five of our 14 test locations, including at Temple U, at Frankford and Girard, and in North Philly.
It's a good thing that we're seeing better 4G performance in Philadelphia, because the city isn't on any carrier's initial 5G launch list. You should probably wait until 2020 to buy a 5G phone anyway.
See our 13 test locations in Philadelphia on the map below:
AT&T torched its rivals on download speeds in Phoenix. The carrier's average of 111Mbps down was one of the fastest we saw anywhere in the country, and combined with AT&T's tie with Verizon in Tucson, it makes AT&T the clear choice in Arizona right now.
AT&T was the clear leader through most of Phoenix and Scottsdale. Sprint did especially well in our tests in Mesa. As we saw elsewhere, Sprint had excellent download speeds in Phoenix, but suffered on uploads and network consistency.
Sprint and Verizon are launching 5G in Phoenix this year. They're likely going to take very different approaches; Verizon will have high-speed, high-density 5G in small areas, where Sprint will try to blanket the city with medium-speed 5G.
See our 19 test locations in Phoenix on the map below:
Portland, OR: Sprint
Sprint's focus on extreme download speeds paid off in Portland, where it simply blew past all of its competitors to deliver spectacular downloads. Sprint's peak speeds weren't the key—the carrier gave us high average speeds, reliably, across all of our test locations, without ever dropping once. This is the kind of network performance we'd like to see from Sprint nationwide.
Sprint pulls off its high download speeds by unevenly dividing its spectrum between uploads and downloads. Because it knows most traffic is downloads, it devotes most of its airwaves to the thing it knows people are mostly doing. That gives it very high download speeds, but lower upload speeds.
We've seen Sprint have high speeds in other cities, but in other cities we saw sharp variability in its network. That led to lower reliability, and so Sprint didn't win. In Portland, Sprint has consistency.
Second place goes to AT&T, the national winner. None of the carriers have so far announced 5G service coming to Portland.
See our 11 test locations in Portland, OR on the map below:
AT&T has owned the Carolinas pretty much since we started this project. I can't think of any other combination of carrier and locale with such enduring dominance. AT&T won both of our North Carolina metro areas, as it always does.
There's a twist this year: Sprint had the best download speeds in the Raleigh-Durham area, and surprisingly it was pretty reliable, too. In fact, Sprint leapt ahead of T-Mobile to take second place. But Sprint's very asymmetrical network caused it to lose points on uploads and latency. If those things don't matter to you, by all means go with Sprint.
Verizon performance was thoroughly uninspiring all around the Triangle—not awful, just not improving the way AT&T and Sprint did.
Raleigh currently has 5G from AT&T, although as of this writing it's for enterprise and developer use only. We expect it to become publicly accessible soon.
See our 14 test locations in Raleigh-Durham on the map below:
Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City: AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile (tie)
AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile all have their strengths in Salt Lake City, and as a result they all ended up tied in our scoring. Here's how it shook out:
Sprint has the highest average download speeds in Salt Lake, but isn't so great on uploads. So it's good for streaming and meme-ing, but not for creating content. Content creators should turn to T-Mobile, which had the best upload speeds and low latency, but its download speeds were a bit lower. AT&T fell in the middle in both categories, but crushed its rivals in our Utah tests outside the SLC area, and in Wyoming, so it's probably the best network if you go to more rural areas.
We had serious, repeatable reliability problems with Verizon in Salt Lake City during our testing. On multiple phones, including our personal devices, we saw an unusual level of dropped connections. That network was having a bad day.
See our 12 test locations in Salt Lake City on the map below:
San Antonio: Verizon
Verizon won in San Antonio thanks largely to a very low-latency, reliable network. Remember, our score isn't entirely dependent on download speeds: Reliable, decent speeds matter a lot, and Verizon showed up with noticeably better rates of consistently decent downloads and uploads than its competitors.
Sprint had the fastest average and peak download speeds in San Antonio, but with the extreme variability we've seen from its network nationwide.
AT&T did surprisingly poorly in San Antonio; not bad enough that it's a real problem, but without the advances we've seen from its 5G Evolution upgrades in other cities. AT&T says it's currently running a 5G system for enterprise and developer use in San Antonio, so hopefully we'll see improved performance soon.
See our 14 test locations in San Antonio on the map below:
San Diego: AT&T
AT&T swept our southern California destinations. In San Diego, AT&T had nearly double the average download speed of the next-fastest network, with excellent reliability. The carrier has been spreading its 5G Evolution LTE improvements up and down the California coastline, and we really saw the positive benefits this year.
AT&T and Verizon both plan to bring 5G to San Diego this year. As they're millimeter wave networks, you should expect to see them in dense parts of downtown and the Gaslamp District; you'll be relying on 4G in most of the sprawling San Diego metro area for years to come.
See our 19 test locations in San Diego on the map below:
San Francisco: Verizon
Verizon very narrowly won our Bay Area tests over AT&T. AT&T had faster average download speeds, but Verizon had the most reliable network in the Bay Area, and reliability matters a lot in our scoring.
Verizon also won last year; AT&T won two years ago. The two of them trade back and forth a lot. Interestingly, Verizon's average speed was slower than last year's, but Verizon had so much network headroom that it could win even with the bit of congestion that it's seeing. Both Verizon and AT&T are clearly good choices here, though.
Sprint did very badly in the Bay Area, with a lot of scattered, poor-speed results. The slow speeds we saw didn't happen in one location—they were scattered over our two days, although the results in the Mission and at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View were particularly poor. Sprint may need to upgrade its interconnections to other servers in the Bay Area to prevent internet-based slowdowns.
AT&T has announced both San Francisco and San Jose as part of its initial run of 5G cities. Currently, that network is for enterprise and developer use only, but I anticipate aggressive network upgrades coming from AT&T over the next year to support the new system.
See our 14 test locations in San Francisco on the map below:
AT&T won Seattle with the best overall network in the area. Sprint had higher average download speeds, but AT&T's network was more balanced and more reliable, giving it a faster general experience. Sprint won last year, but AT&T caught up this year thanks to its 5G Evolution upgrades to its LTE network.
Verizon really lagged in Seattle this year. Its network was reliable, just never particularly fast. In fact, it was slower than the results we saw last year, showing that Verizon must be experiencing some congestion.
Seattle is T-Mobile's hometown, but T-Mobile hasn't won here in a few years. Its performance wasn't bad, but AT&T has leapt ahead of it in the past year.
See our 11 test locations in Seattle on the map below:
St. Louis: AT&T
AT&T's 5G Evolution upgrades have really evolved its network in St. Louis. We saw double the average download speeds on AT&T compared with any other carrier, with a spectacular 102Mbps result and every single download test we made coming out at broadband speeds.
Sprint in St. Louis could really use a hit of T-Mobile's reliability. What happened? It looks like Sprint cut out during our tests in Kirkwood and Pine Lawn, really hitting the carrier's reliability numbers. Even without those weak spots, Sprint still wouldn't have led, though.
St. Louis isn't on any carrier's current 5G plan, but AT&T's 4G network looks good enough for at least the next year. Next year's 5G phones will be much more broadly compatible and more efficient than the current ones anyway.
See our 12 test locations in St. Louis on the map below:
Tucson: AT&T and Verizon (tie)
AT&T and Verizon tied in Tucson with different strengths: AT&T had faster downloads and was more reliable, while Verizon had faster uploads and lower latency. We judge AT&T as the best overall choice for Arizona because it also won Phoenix, and AT&T had the best results in our drives around rural Arizona areas.
Tucson was weak for T-Mobile this year. Neither T-Mobile nor Sprint had the level of reliable, high-speed connections that AT&T did.
No carrier has yet announced 5G plans for Tucson.
See our 16 test locations in Tucson on the map below:
Washington, DC: Verizon
Verizon maintained its leadership in the national capital area with a balanced network delivering excellent uploads, downloads, and low latency. Both Verizon and AT&T doubled their download speeds this year, and all of the carriers had much more reliable networks. (I'm pretty sure that last year, we hit Washington on a bad day.)
T-Mobile is lagging in DC, but not in the way you think. All four carriers reported higher average download speeds than they did last year. T-Mobile's speeds just didn't increase by the leaps and bounds everyone else's did. The carrier also hit slow spots at our locations on Capitol Hill and in Columbia Heights, dragging down its averages.
On average, the fanciest parts of town seem to get the best service in DC: We saw the best overall average speeds in Georgetown and Tenleytown, although speeds all over the area were good this year, especially on AT&T and Verizon.
Washington will be getting 5G from Sprint later this spring, and from Verizon later this year. When we tested Sprint's 5G network in Dallas, we found that it has promising coverage and download speeds over 300Mbps.
See our 16 test locations in Washington, DC on the map below:
Northeast: AT&T and Verizon (tie)
Our drive through the Northeast mostly stuck to the crowded coastal corridor. We drove down I-95 from Boston through Rhode Island, stopped in central Connecticut, made several stops across coastal and southern New Jersey, tried out western Maryland, and drove down through Virginia.
It won't surprise most folks that AT&T and Verizon both had their strengths across the region. Verizon, as we expected, was better in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. AT&T was better in Maryland and Virginia.
T-Mobile and Sprint actually both have pretty good coverage in the suburbs and small towns of the Northeast nowadays; their reputation as city-only carriers is obsolete. They just didn't have quite the level of performance in these tests that we saw with the two larger carriers.
AT&T's relentless strength across the Carolinas helped it win the award on this drive. T-Mobile did well once we got into Florida, but that was outweighed by our results in the two Carolinas and in rural Georgia, where AT&T pretty much rules.
North Central: AT&T
This segment of our drive included Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, and Wisconsin. There's a big gap in Missouri because Missouri was dangerously flooded during our testing.
AT&T was the clear leader in Kansas and Wisconsin. In Indiana, we were surprised to see Sprint popping up with the fastest download speeds and surprisingly good reliability. Looking at Sprint's coverage map, it still has some holes in western Indiana, but by sticking along the I-70 and I-65 corridors, we avoided them. If we had gone more rural, AT&T would have won this by a larger margin.
South Central: AT&T
This was mostly a drive through Texas and a little bit in Oklahoma. AT&T has a very strong, reliable network in Texas, and clearly won here. Sprint's solid showing is a big surprise, though: Sprint actually scored higher on download speeds than AT&T did, but it got rated down because of the other components of our scoring system.
AT&T is bringing 5G to more Texas cities than its rivals, as well. Along with Dallas and Houston, AT&T intends to cover San Antonio and Waco, which the other carriers haven't announced. Austin is lagging, though; local publications have said that the city is dragging its feet on allowing permits for 5G radios to be installed. And nobody's talking about 5G in West Texas yet.
Our drive in the Northwest really taxed all the networks. We drove over some Washington mountains and down parts of the California and Oregon coasts where all of the carriers cut out. Verizon cut out the least of all of them, but it still failed 14 percent of the time, which isn't great.
AT&T delivered the best speeds in tough situations, though, especially through Utah and Wyoming, where we had more continuous coverage on all the networks. AT&T's results in parts of Wyoming, in fact, mirrored the kinds of speeds we got in much more populated areas.
AT&T ruled our Southwest cities, so it wasn't surprising that it got the top result in our southwestern rural drives as well. While all of the carriers were decent in southern California, AT&T was the fastest in Arizona. Sprint, however, did surprisingly well in Arizona, topping all of the other carriers on reliability—an unusual feat for the carrier.
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