Verizon Wireless remains America’s fastest mobile network by a nose in our closest Fastest Mobile Networks race ever. In our tests across the US, Verizon offered the most reliable and consistent high-speed network overall, but split individual wins for 36 cities and rural regions three ways with AT&T and T-Mobile—the first time we’ve seen that kind of an even divide.
It’s clear that all three carriers are pushing hard to improve their networks. Depending on where you live, they’re all great choices. While Verizon is the fastest mobile network overall, AT&T has the fastest average download speeds in the nation, and T-Mobile can cost less than Verizon while offering very close to the same performance.
For our eighth annual test, we spent most of May driving within and between 30 cities, with Samsung Galaxy S8 phones continually running speed tests based on a customized version of Ookla’s Speedtest.net software. (Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag.com’s parent company.) We collected more than 124,000 data points, and then balanced downloads, uploads, latency, and reliability to create our Speed Score.
AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon all offer strong performance this year, but they don’t each offer strong performance everywhere. For example, AT&T is weak in New York City but strong in Indianapolis, while T-Mobile is the other way around. So it’s important to check our individual city pages if you’re making a carrier choice.
Sprint seems to have hit a roadblock after vaulting hugely forward between 2015 and 2016. While we saw the same spectacular peak speeds on Sprint that we got on the other carriers, they were far less consistent; Sprint’s speeds would shoot up and then plummet within cities more often than other carriers, creating lower averages.
This is a snapshot of network performance from May 1-23, 2017. Networks can, will, and should change as the year goes on.
All Carriers Are the Big Four
We test the four big, nationwide carriers, but these results also apply to most of the other brands available in the US.
That’s because most other big names—except for U.S. Cellular, which runs its own, predominantly rural network—just borrow and rename one of these networks. For instance, Cricket is AT&T; MetroPCS is T-Mobile; Virgin and Boost are Sprint; and Google Fi is a mix of Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular. TracFone can be any one of the four major networks depending on what kind of SIM card you have.
If you aren’t using one of the big brands, you may not get top speeds. For instance, Verizon throttles other brands’ customers to 5Mbps. But our study’s data on reliability and latency will still apply. For more on which low-cost brands use which networks, see our story, The Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans You’ve Never Heard Of.
Eight Years of Faster Networks
When we started Fastest Mobile Networks, the speeds we’re seeing today were absolutely unheard of.
Fastest Mobile Networks 2010 was our first report, and at the time, Verizon was running a slow 3G data network. Sprint was on WiMAX, a now obsolete technology that claimed to be 4G, but ended up as a dead end. No carrier averaged over 5Mbps.
Verizon introduced LTE by 2011. AT&T followed a year later, and then T-Mobile and Sprint did the same. But speed increases weren’t steady. AT&T’s network plummeted under heavy load in 2013, with Verizon’s network suffering the year after.
The leaps and bounds we’ve seen over the past few years show no sign of stopping. Looking at the maximum download speeds, it looks like there’s a 2x jump every two years or so—from 50-60Mbps in 2014, to 120Mbps in 2016, and now to 200Mbps.
LTE has more to give. A well-designed gigabit LTE network, like Telstra’s in Australia, can deliver 400-450Mbps on a regular basis. In 2018 and 2019, we’re hoping to see those speeds from carriers here in the US.
By 2020 and 2021, we’re going to have 5G phones. Demos I’ve seen at Qualcomm have shown the potential for speeds of 4 gigabits and up to each device. That will potentially enable real-time group VR and other science fiction-like experiences. We’ll keep testing, just to make sure.
Gigabit LTE Isn’t Just the Future
AT&T is evolving. So are T-Mobile and Verizon. All three carriers have introduced “gigabit LTE,” a mix of three new technologies that can really accelerate your wireless speeds. No, gigabit LTE won’t give you actual gigabit speeds, but our tests show it can double your download speeds from previous network generations.
AT&T has branded its gigabit LTE network as “5G Evolution” (it isn’t 5G), and said it’s coming to at least 20 cities this year. Its first two cities are Austin and Indianapolis, and true to its word, AT&T won both of those cities. It would have done even better in Indianapolis if we were only measuring speeds within AT&T’s network, rather than going out to an external speed-test server. After several years of flat or declining speeds, AT&T rocketed ahead this year with its new initiative.
T-Mobile has also leapt forward with both speed and coverage. The carrier is clearly installing gigabit LTE technology, and has broader rural and suburban coverage than we saw in previous years. Any lingering ideas about T-Mobile as a discount, cities-only carrier should be dispelled.
Given how loud AT&T and T-Mobile have been about their gigabit evolutions, Verizon was the quiet surprise this year. The company has confirmed it’s installing all three of the gigabit technologies—it’s just not being so loud about it.
If you don’t see these speeds, you might not have a gigabit LTE phone. We used the Samsung Galaxy S8, the nation’s first gigabit LTE device. In Why You Need a Faster Phone, we show the huge advantage the S8 has over its competitors, especially the notoriously slow Apple iPhones. The HTC U11 and Moto Z2 Force also have gigabit LTE, and we expect to see it in more flagship phones throughout the year.
While the Galaxy S8 has gigabit speeds on three networks, during our testing there was no gigabit phone available compatible with Sprint. That might help explain Sprint’s weaker performance. But it also shows a habitual problem Sprint has: Because the carrier has a unique radio network, device manufacturers have to go out of their way to optimize their phones for it. The HTC U11 is Sprint’s first gigabit phone.
Looking Forward to 5G
This is our eighth year running Fastest Mobile Networks and our first looking only at LTE networks. Pretty soon, though, we’ll be looking at 5G.
4G LTE speeds will continue to advance over the next year. T-Mobile will fill in its rural coverage gaps with its new deployment of 600MHz spectrum starting this fall. Sprint is working on its urban coverage gaps with its new Magic Box micro-cell units; if you have an issue with Sprint coverage, get one.
The next great leap forward will be 5G. We don’t mean AT&T’s “5G Evolution” (which is 4G), or the pre-5G home internet systems AT&T and Verizon are setting up this year.
Real 5G will arrive at the end of 2018. It’ll require new phones, but it won’t just be for phones. With very low latencies, it’ll be a major technology in self-driving cars. Coming at a very low cost, it’ll enable a wide variety of cheap, connected sensors; T-Mobile’s COO told me it’ll let you “Lo-Jack everything.”
On your phone, 5G will push augmented and virtual reality experiences. It’ll probably also blur the difference between home and wireless internet, letting you have one subscription or service plan for both. For people who don’t use the most data-hungry services, it will hopefully bring down costs.
Looking at the growth of LTE through Fastest Mobile Networks, though, it’s going to be a long time before 5G is dominant. We tested our first 4G LTE networks in 2011, but only now, six years later, are we finally casting off 3G testing. 4G will probably be the backbone of mobile data service for the next five years or so, as 5G networks spread and develop new features. For more, see What Is 5G?