Best Mobile Network 2016

Editors' Note: 9/8/15 Update: One of our initial test phones for MetroPCS was not connecting to its LTE network properly. As a result, we retested in various cities and have updated this performance comparison.

You can have a great cellular plan that delivers a lot of data for a little dough, great customer service and all sorts of perks. But if your cellular provider can't deliver reliably fast performance, nothing else really matters.

We set out to determine which carrier offers the best cellular network performance in the United States, putting nine carriers to the test in half-a-dozen major U.S. cities. While some fared stronger than others depending on the location, Verizon emerged as the most consistent carrier in all of our test areas, finishing with the best average download and upload speeds.

MORE: Who Is the Best Phone Carrier Overall?

T-Mobile posted national download and upload averages that were just behind Verizon's scores in our tests. AT&T also posted solid national numbers, finishing with the third fastest average download speed, while MetroPCS was fourth.

Sprint's national averages were far behind those of the other major carriers, which isn't that surprising, given our past experience with the network. However, the carrier even fell behind MetroPCS, which bested Sprint’s average download and upload speeds to finish fourth in our testing. It’s worth noting that as strong as MetroPCS’s speeds were, they didn’t quite match those of parent network T-Mobile. Still, the falloff wasn’t as dramatic as some other discount carriers. Cricket which finished well off the pace set by parent company AT&T.

How We Tested

In addition to evaluating the major U.S. carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — we included five of the leading prepaid carriers in our tests: Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS, Straight Talk and Virgin Mobile. We used a Samsung Galaxy S5 supplied by each carrier. In cases where the carrier did not supply us with a phone, we used a carrier's SIM card. In three of the cities where we tested — New York, Chicago and Houston — we inserted SIM cards for Straight Talk and Cricket Wireless into our Galaxy S5 from AT&T. We used the MetroPCS SIM card in our T-Mobile G5. In the other three cities — Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle — we used unlocked GSM-based Galaxy S5 smartphones for our Cricket and Straight Talk testing while we used the MetroPCS SIM card in our T-Mobile G5.

In each of our test cities, we selected six test sites based on geographic diversity and popularity. At each site, we ran Ookla's Speedtest.net app for Android five times for each carrier, averaging the download and upload speeds recorded by the app. We also downloaded Candy Crush Saga (a 50MB file) using each carrier's network and recorded the time it took to get the app on our phones. We capped download times at 5 minutes, reasoning that a 50MB file should be downloadable in that time.

MORE: How Carriers Fared in Our Customer Service Tests

After determining average download and upload speeds for each location in each city, we used those results to come up with an average performance number for all six cities. Those results also helped us produce a total average encompassing all of our testing.

After determining average download and upload speeds for each location in each city, we used those results to come up with an average performance number for all six cities. Those results also helped us produce a total average encompassing all of our testing.

MORE: How Carriers Cell Phone Plans Stack Up

Because our tests represent a snapshot in time for each city, we also consulted data from third-party networking testing companies. For each city, we compared our findings to the most recent test results from RootMetrics, which tests not only for data performance but also talk, text, speed and reliability to provide any overall score for the four major carriers. In addition, we've linked to Ookla's crowdsourced testing data, which is dynamically updated to reflect the latest results. (The Ookla numbers cited at the end of each city report reflect the results as of August 2015.)







See 4G Performance Results By City

• New York City
• Los Angeles
• Seattle
• San Francisco
• Chicago
• Houston

Create a new thread in the Wireless Carriers forum about this subject
2 comments