Chicago's "Windy City" moniker refers to the politicians the city is known for, though it could just as easily be about all the bluster emanating from mobile carriers as to who offers the best service. Let's cut through the hot air: Verizon provides the fastest LTE service in Chicago, producing the best results in five of the six locations where we tested.
AT&T turned in a respectable second-place finish in our testing. And we were surprised to see mobile virtual network operators Straight Talk and Boost — which use other carriers' networks to provide service — produce some solid results. But none of that should obscure that, when it comes to fast data, Verizon is the king of Chicago. —Meghan J. McDonough
In the neighborhood around the historic ballpark, Verizon got off to the kind of fast start the Cubs would envy, with an average download speed of 70.6 Mbps and an average upload speed of 27.7 Mbps. AT&T turned in the next fastest time, at 57.4 Mbps down and 16.7 Mbps up, with most of the other carriers bunched together. (The exception? Cricket, which brought up the rear for both download and upload speeds.) Downloading Candy Crush Saga proved faster than getting a beer in this nightlife-rich neighborhood, with Verizon finishing the task in 8 seconds. AT&T trailed by only a second, while Sprint took just 19 seconds.
In a data-hungry neighborhood that's home to a college, a zoo and million-dollar mansions, Verizon blew away the competition, with an average download speed of 68.3 Mbps. Only AT&T was within shouting distance, at 44.7 Mbps. The same held true for uploads, with Verizon's 35.6 Mbps average doubling the next-fastest competitor. App downloads also blazed by in Lincoln Park, with Verizon leading the pack with a 12-second time. Every other carrier downloaded Candy Crush Saga in less than 33 seconds, except Cricket, which took 1 minute and 16 seconds.
James R. Thompson Center at Clark & Lake
It may house the busiest Chicago Transit Authority stop in the Loop as well as several state government offices, but don't expect top speeds at the Thompson Center. Verizon was the only carrier that didn't embarrass itself, logging an average download speed of 32.3 Mbps. Straight Talk's 4.8 Mbps average was good enough for second place, while Boost, MetroPCS, Sprint and T-Mobile all averaged speeds of less than 1 Mbps.
Verizon completed the Candy Crush Saga download in a swift 24 seconds, while Straight Talk finished in 1 minute and 41 seconds. Neither MetroPCS nor T-Mobile could finish the download in 5 minutes, while Boost, Virgin and Cricket snuck in just under the wire, with 4-minute-plus download times.
Verizon faced stiffer competition in this park bridging Chicago's downtown with Grant Park and the lakefront. Big Red still netted the fastest average download speed, at 16 Mbps, but that was just barely ahead of Straight Talk's 13.6 Mbps average. Verizon fared better in upload speed averages, with a 21.7 Mbps result that lapped second-place AT&T's 10 Mbps result. At 34 seconds, Verizon just edged out AT&T (42 seconds) when downloading Candy Crush Saga.
Walking through the lakefront Museum Campus, it was hard not to think that Verizon had a tower-toting drone following us around Chicago. Verizon turned in the fastest download and upload averages, scoring 51.4 Mbps and 39.9 Mbps, respectively. The next-closest download speed? AT&T, with 7.2 Mbps. The upload averages of AT&T and Straight Talk — 8.5 Mbps and 7.6 Mbps, respectively — were also off Verizon's pace.
As you might expect, Verizon owned the Candy Crush Saga download test here, too, taking just 15 seconds to complete the task. AT&T and Straight Talk tied, with 1 minute and 29 seconds, while Sprint, MetroPCS, Virgin and Boost all hit our 5-minute download cap.
Just like the influx of hipsters into this neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, other carriers swooped in to finally knock off Verizon. AT&T tallied a download speed of 33.8 Mbps, beating out the 8.9 Mbps times turned in by both Verizon and Boost. Speaking of Boost, it had the top upload speed, at 7 Mbps.
AT&T downloaded Candy Crush Saga in 26 seconds — well ahead of Verizon's 50-second time. Meanwhile, T-Mobile and MetroPCS struggled in this location, recording the slowest download speeds and finishing at the rear of the pack in our app download test.
It should come as no surprise that Verizon had the best averages on the tests we conducted throughout the Windy City. Verizon's average download speed was a blistering 41.3 Mbps, while next-best AT&T clocked in at an average of 26.4 Mbps. Upload speeds were the same story: Verizon's 25.9 Mbps average more than doubled AT&T's 10.2 Mbps.
Among the other major carriers, Sprint posted an average download speed of 8.6 Mbps and an average upload speed of 6.8 Mbps, topping the 6.5 Mbps down and 6.1 Mbps up that T-Mobile turned in.
Perhaps the most surprising takeaways on the prepaid-carrier side were Straight Talk's and Boost's respectable download showings. Boost, which runs on Sprint's network, averaged 9.4 Mbps, while Straight Talk, which taps into a number of different networks, averaged 10.4 Mbps. If you're considering the cost of cellular service, Straight Talk does offer less of a speed trade-off, though its performance can still vary widely.
Our Candy Crush Saga download test echoed Verizon's dominance, with its average of 24 seconds. The surprise? Straight Talk was the next fastest, with an average of 1 minute and 3 seconds.
How Others See It
It's fairly unanimous: Verizon has the best data performance in Chicago, based on network testing conducted by both RootMetrics and Ookla. In the latest RootMetrics survey for Chicago, conducted in the first half of 2015, Verizon scored the highest in data performance rankings, with 98.2 on a 100-point scale. That just barely beat AT&T's score of 98.1, though Verizon also had the fastest media download (27.4 Mbps) and upload speeds (16.5 Mbps), according to RootMetrics. In the company's overall ranking — which considers voice, text, reliability and speed — RootMetrics declared Verizon and AT&T joint winners, with identical scores of 98.7.
Ookla was more emphatic about Verizon's dominance. In its test results at the end of August 2015, Verizon tallied an average download speed topping 25.5 Mbps — well ahead of AT&T's 13.6 Mbps result. T-Mobile was just behind AT&T, with a download speed of 12.9 in Ookla’s testing.