San Francisco has a reputation for its “anything goes” attitude, and that seems to extend to cellphone coverage. Three different carriers finished on top of our download, upload, and app downloading tests, allowing AT&T, MetroPCS and Verizon to point to a winning performance on the streets of San Francisco. And a fourth, T-Mobile, also turned in respectable numbers.
The same can’t be said for Sprint, which fared the poorest of the big four carriers in our San Francisco testing. Other than MetroPCS, none of the discount carriers we tested approached the network performance of the major cellphone providers, though Virgin Mobile’s strong results in one location boosted its overall performance average.—Philip Michaels
Morning commuters jostled past window-shopping tourists inside San Francisco's busy ferry terminal, and cellular networks proved to be just as congested. T-Mobile finished on top for both average download and upload speeds, with totals of 9.3 Mbps and 4.4 Mbps, respectively. AT&T finished a distant second with an average download speed of 7.0 Mbps and an upload speed of 2.7 Mbps.
T-Mobile and AT&T also finished one-two in downloading Candy Crush Saga, with T-Mobile's download time of 1 minute, 8 seconds outpacing AT&T's 1:57 download. Only MetroPCS, which uses T-Mobile's network, was able to complete the app download in less than 5 minutes. All other carriers, including Sprint and Verizon, lagged well behind the leaders.
Our second stop in the heart of San Francisco's downtown shopping district provided decidedly more hustle and bustle in the carriers' performance — and a surprising winner for best average download speed. Virgin Mobile, which uses Sprint's network, tallied an average download speed of 36.9 Mbps, outpacing even its parent network. Sprint had the third-fastest average download speed of 20.2 Mbps, trailing only Virgin and Boost (20.8 Mbps), another carrier that piggybacks on Sprint's network.
T-Mobile and AT&T returned to their winning ways with average upload speeds, with scores of 14.5 Mbps and 14.0 Mbps, respectively — enough to top third-place Virgin's 9.8 Mbps upload speed. But Boost, Virgin and Sprint swept the app download category, with Boost's 31-second download of Candy Crush Saga finishing ahead of Virgin's 38-second time and Sprint's 50-second download. Curiously, neither T-Mobile nor MetroPCS could complete the app download in 5 minutes.
Anything less than an AT&T win at the baseball stadium bearing its name would be a major upset. Appropriately, AT&T came through with the top average download speed of 41.4 Mbps, ahead of both T-Mobile (32.7 Mbps), MetroPCS (26 Mbps) and Verizon (11.4 Mbps). But average upload speeds for both MetroPCS and parent carrier T-Mobile (25.3 Mbps and 21.4 Mbps, respectively) topped AT&T's 15.1 Mbps upload speed on the carrier’s home field. MetroPCS also bested AT&T on the app download test, with its 30 second time topping AT&T’s 39 second average.
Sprint finished dead last in average download speed (1.8 Mbps) and second-to-last in app download time, with its 4:20 download time topping only Cricket by 1 second. Also noteworthy was Straight Talk's 1:23 download time, which was not far behind T-Mobile (47 seconds) and Verizon (49 seconds).
In the neighborhood made famous by the counterculture, most networks opted to drop out rather than turn on or tune in. The notable exception was Verizon, which finished substantially ahead of all other carriers in both average download (27.7 Mbps) and upload (8.4 Mbps) speeds. T-Mobile had the next fastest average download speed at 7.74 Mbps, just edging the 7.3 Mbps download speed of its MetroPCS subsidiary. Boost and Sprint jockeyed for second place in average upload speed with scores of 3 Mbps and 2.5 Mbps, respectively.
It's not surprising, then, that Verizon featured the fastest app download time, as we downloaded Candy Crush Saga inside a burger restaurant just a block away from San Francisco's most famous intersection. Verizon finished the task in 32 seconds, better than MetroPCS (53 seconds), T-Mobile (2:17) and Boost (3:02). No other carrier completed the download in less than 5 minutes. Far out, man.
Golden Gate Park
Wedged between the DeYoung Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, the Music Concourse at Golden Gate Park offers a respite from city living. But MetroPCS and AT&T weren’t content to sit back and relax -- MetroPCS tallied the best average download speed at 16.9 Mbps while AT&T scored the best average upload speed at 10.2 Mbps. (AT&T’s 11.3 Mbps download average was good enough for second place.)
Straight Talk reaped the benefits of using AT&T's network, with the fourth-fastest average download speed (5.3 Mbps), and even AT&T-backed Cricket turned in one of its better download speed averages (4 Mbps). But really, the only carrier to challenge AT&T and MetroPCS in Golden Gate Park was Verizon, which had the finished third for download speed (6.3 Mbps) and second for upload speed (8.8 Mbps.)
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MetroPCS finished with the best download time, downloading Candy Crush Saga in 38 seconds. AT&T and Verizon completed the download in 1:06 and 1:17, respectively. Straight Talk was just behind at 1:32. Golden Gate Park proved to be a less-than-idyllic location for Sprint and the two carriers that use its network. Boost, Virgin and Sprint had the three lowest average download speeds; they were also the only carriers unable to download Candy Crush Saga in less than 5 minutes.
Yerba Buena Gardens
Our return to downtown San Francisco for one final test marked the return of AT&T and T-Mobile fighting for the top spot. At a courtyard just outside the bustling Metreon shopping and entertainment center, AT&T scored the fastest average download speed of 61.5 Mbps, almost twice the 31.8 Mbps we recorded for second-place T-Mobile. Verizon rounded the top three with a 21.89 Mbps average speed.
When it came to upload speeds, though, MetroPCS asserted itself with a 21.1 Mbps average, just ahead of T-Mobile’s 20.2 Mbps result. AT&T (12.8 Mbps) and Verizon (12 Mbps) finished third and fourth. The results were reversed in our app download test: Verizon downloaded Candy Crush Saga the fastest, taking only 22 seconds. That topped both AT&T (34 seconds), T-Mobile (44 seconds) and MetroPCS (52 seconds).
AT&T, T-Mobile and MetroPCS spent most of our trip around San Francisco trading places near the top of our results list, so it's not surprising to see them finish 1-2-3 in overall download speeds. AT&T posted the best average download speed at 22.7 Mbps, ahead of T-Mobile's 16.3 Mbps and MetroPCS’s 13.1 Mbps scores. The three reversed positions for best average upload speed, with MetroPCS (11.2 Mbps) finishing just ahead of T-Mobile (10.7 Mbps) and AT&T (9.1 Mbps).
On our real-world download test, however, those three had to make way for another contender. Verizon's average download speed for Candy Crush Saga was 1:32, ahead of the 1:47, 2:00 and 2:08 times recorded by AT&T, MetroPCS and T-Mobile, respectively. That Verizon's download and upload averages finished third to AT&T and T-Mobile suggests that Verizon subscribers can expect solid network performance in the City by the Bay.
The same cannot be said for Sprint, which kept pace with its Big Four rivals in only two of the six locations where we tested. In fact, Sprint's average download and upload speeds of 6.82 Mbps and 3.73 Mbps, respectively, placed it behind Virgin's averages, which were buoyed by that discount carrier's strong performance in Union Square.
How Others See It
While our results reflect only a moment in time, they do square fairly well with more extensive testing done by both RootMetrics and Ookla. In RootMetrics' rankings of data performance for the first half of 2015, AT&T finished first in San Francisco with a ranking of 97.8 on the network performance testing firm's 100-point index. T-Mobile and Verizon were right behind with scores of 97.5 and 96.5, respectively, while Sprint brought up the rear with a 92.2 rating. Rootmetrics said that AT&T had the top median download speed of 21.8 Mbps, with T-Mobile recording the best median upload speed at 19.4 Mbps. For overall performance, which also takes in factors like voice calls, texting, reliability and speed, AT&T and Verizon shared Rootmetrics' top ranking.
Ookla's testing ranks Verizon as the fastest carrier in San Francisco as of the end of August 2015, with an average download speed of 18.4 Mbps. T-Mobile and AT&T were right behind with average speeds of 18.1 Mbps and 16.5 Mbps, respectively. Sprint finished fourth with a 9.9 Mbps average.