When it comes to LTE download speeds, there's Verizon and then there's everybody else. The company posted the fastest average download speeds in our testing across six U.S. cities, as well as the fastest average time for downloading an app. That was enough to help Big Red keep its hold on our award for the best network performance, after claiming the crown in our last round of testing.
But it wasn't a clean sweep for Verizon. T-Mobile scored the fastest average upload speeds across our six-city tests. In fact, the T-Mobile-owned company MetroPCS also beat out Verizon for average upload speed in what was generally an impressive showing for the entire T-Mobile network.
AT&T had a decent showing, finishing as runner-up to Verizon both for average download speed and in our app-download test. And Sprint, along with its Virgin and Boost subsidiaries, improved substantially from the last time we did testing. But the real story here was Verizon, which relied on solid numbers across multiple cities and a standout performance in Chicago to post an average download speed of 36 Mbps, a 41 percent improvement over the next-fastest carrier (AT&T, at 25.6 Mbps).
As for prepaid carriers, MetroPCS essentially matched the download and upload speeds of parent company, T-Mobile (and even bested its parent carrier in a couple of tests). Sprint-owned Boost and Virgin also turned in performances in line with their parent carrier's showing, while Cricket's average speeds were well off the pace set by its parent company, AT&T. (That's not a surprise if you read the fine print on Cricket's wireless plans, where the carrier says it LTE download speeds max out at 8Mbps.) For download speed, in fact, Cricket finished just ahead Straight Talk, the slowpoke of our testing.
How We Tested
We selected nine popular wireless carriers for testing. Besides the four major U.S. carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — we also took a look at five leading prepaid carriers: Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS, Straight Talk and Virgin Mobile. Seven of those carriers provided us with Galaxy S7 smartphones equipped with their SIM cards. The two exceptions were Cricket and Straight Talk. To test those prepaid services, we bought unlocked Galaxy S7s and then purchased SIM cards directly from the two carriers.
We used the same phones in all six cities. Testing was conducted by Philip Michaels, Sam Rutherford, Lauren L'Amie and Meghan McDonough.
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, then averaged the download and upload speeds recorded by the app. We also downloaded Pokémon Go (a 58MB file) from Google Play using each carrier's network, recording the time it took to install the app on our phones. If the app hadn't downloaded after 5 minutes, we listed the download time as 5:00 and stopped the test.
We split the locations we tested between indoor and outdoor locations to see how being indoors affected carrier performance. Generally speaking, speeds slowed down for most carriers when we tested at indoor locations — dramatically, in some cases. The lone exception was Verizon, whose average download speeds improved during indoor testing in four of our six test cities.
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. To determine our final rankings, we looked at both download and upload averages, as well how close the gap was between different carriers; we also considered how carriers fared when downloading mobile apps. Here's how the carriers finished.
Verizon: First Place
Verizon performed the best on our tests, because it had the highest average download speed (36 Mbps) and fastest app-download time (1 minute, 2 seconds). It finished third in average upload speed, behind T-Mobile and MetroPCS, which use the same network.
Verizon's strong showing in Chicago helped the carrier's overall performance considerably, as it logged an average download speed of 85 Mbps across our six test sites. That's double the speed of the next-closest finisher (MetroPCS, with a 33.4 Mbps average.)
In fact, Verizon had the best download speeds in both Chicago and New York, and never finished outside the top four in any city we tested. Verizon also had the best app-download times in every city where we tested.
You can expect dependable performance from Verizon whether you're using the network indoors or outdoors. Only in Chicago and Los Angeles were Verizon's download speeds worse than its overall performance (and in the case of Chicago, the carrier's overall performance was off the charts.) Given its reach and its overall speed, Verizon's network is tough to beat.
T-Mobile: Runner-Up (Tie)
T-Mobile set the pace for average upload time, racking up speeds of 16.4 Mbps in our tests. The carrier's average download speed of 23.5 Mbps wasn't too shabby either, though it placed behind both Verizon and AT&T.
We were surprised that T-Mobile didn't fare as well when downloading Pokémon Go, with an average time of 1 minute, 51 seconds, placing it behind its own MetroPCS subsidiary. T-Mobile's average was inflated by a couple of instances in which it couldn't complete the download in 5 minutes.
That said, T-Mobile still performed well across the U.S., turning in the top performance in Seattle, finishing as runner-up in New York and landing in the top four in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. T-Mobile has a reputation for performing well in metro areas, and it's a well-earned one.
One thing holding back T-Mobile: its performance indoors. Even in Seattle, where the Uncarrier reigned supreme, it registered dramatically slower download speeds at our three indoor test sites. Houston was the only city where T-Mobile's speed didn't drop when we moved indoors.
MetroPCS: Runner-Up (Tie)
MetroPCS uses the same network as its parent company, T-Mobile, and that's a good thing.
The prepaid carrier turned in download and upload speeds so close to T-Mobile's that we're calling it a tie. And in three cities — Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco — MetroPCS finished slightly ahead of T-Mobile for average download speed.
That's a big improvement from the last time we tested carrier performance, when MetroPCS was off the pace set by its parent network. After this latest round of testing, we feel confident that MetroPCS customers can enjoy more or less the same performance they would get from T-Mobile. And with MetroPCS offering an array of lower-cost, tiered-data plans to complement T-Mobile's lone, unlimited-data plan, that's good news for budget-minded mobile users.
AT&T: Fourth Place
AT&T put in another respectable showing in our testing, with the second-best average download speed (25.6 Mbps) behind Verizon. AT&T also finished third in our app-download test, taking an average of 1 minute, 44 seconds to download Pokémon Go from Google Play.
The carrier's average download speed of 11.4 Mbps put AT&T in fifth place, behind even its Cricket subsidiary (which otherwise fell far short of AT&T's performance).
AT&T had the best download speeds in both Los Angeles and San Francisco (though its numbers in the latter city were skewed by off-the-charts download times at the ballpark that bears the carrier's name). Only in Seattle and Chicago did AT&T turn in the worst performance of the Big Four carriers, but solid numbers elsewhere boosted AT&T's overall score.
Like many carriers, AT&T's performance dipped when we tested indoors, though not as severely as happened for the likes of T-Mobile and Sprint. In Chicago and Los Angeles, in fact, AT&T even performed better indoors, reinforcing its reputation for providing dependable speeds.
Sprint: Fifth Place
For Sprint, it's a matter of the glass being either half-empty or half-full.
On the one hand, the carrier continues to trail its Big Four rivals — and MetroPCS — for upload and download speeds. But on the other hand, Sprint is showing signs of improvement.
Sprint fared particularly well in Houston, where the carrier's average 52.4-Mbps download speed trailed only Virgin (which uses Sprint's network), and in Chicago, where Sprint registered a faster download speed than AT&T and T-Mobile. Lackluster results in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco brought down Sprint's overall performance, with national averages of 17.7 Mbps and 7.7 Mbps, respectively.
As we found in our past testing, there's little to separate Sprint from its Virgin and Boost subsidiaries in terms of performance. Virgin tallied slightly faster download times than the other members of the trio, but Sprint had the best average upload speed and downloaded Pokémon Go the quickest. So we give the nod to Sprint over its prepaid alternatives.
Editors' Note: An earlier version of this report transposed Sprint's results in Houston and Chicago. We've corrected the error.
Virgin: Sixth Place
You'd have a hard time spotting the differences between Virgin and its parent company, Sprint, in our network testing.
Virgin recorded a slightly better download speed across six cities, at 18 Mbps, but its 7-Mbps average for uploads trailed Sprint's numbers. We averaged 2 minutes, 11 seconds running our app-download test on Virgin, a second behind Sprint's 2:10 time.
Virgin actually set the pace when we tested in Houston, which helped the carrier's overall average. As with Sprint, Virgin turned in its worst numbers in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Still, that Virgin so closely matches the network performance of its parent company makes this carrier a compelling option for prepaid customers looking to save money on their monthly cellphone plans. However, Virgin's overall performance was well behind that of MetroPCS, which was our top-performing prepaid carrier.
Boost: Seventh Place
Sprint's prepaid subsidiaries tend to track pretty closely to the parent network's performance, and Boost is no exception, though its averages were a little slower than what Virgin had to offer.
Boost recorded average download and upload speeds of 16.8 Mbps and 6.7 Mbps, respectively — close to the results Sprint turned in, though not as close as what we saw from Virgin. Boost also had the slowest app-download average of the Sprint-owned carriers, at 2 minutes, 17 seconds.
Cricket: Eighth Place
For download speeds, Cricket finds itself far off the pace of other carriers. Cricket's national average of 6 Mbps was second-to-worst in our testing, with the next-slowest carrier, Boost, more than doubling Cricket's download speeds.
More troubling for Cricket, its download speed was far below the 25.6-Mbps average tallied by parent company, AT&T, meaning you'll take a serious performance hit if you opt for one Cricket's lower-priced prepaid plans.
Cricket also tied Straight Talk for having the slowest app-download time, at 2 minutes, 43 seconds.
It's not all bad news for Cricket. The carrier actually posted a respectable average upload speed of 11.9 Mbps, which was in line with AT&T's performance. Still, the numbers don't lie: Cricket's overall performance just doesn't measure up to that of other prepaid options out there, especially when it comes to matching the download speeds of its parent carrier.
Straight Talk: Ninth Place
For the second consecutive year, Straight Talk did not put its best foot forward in our carrier testing.
It had the slowest national download and upload averages of any carrier we tested, and it finished last in every city in which we tested. Only in a handful of tests did Straight Talk's download speed poke its head above 6 Mbps before going back to its pokey ways.
If there's any good news to be found here, it's that Straight Talk didn't turn in the worst app-download time in our tests. Instead, the carrier tied for the worst time, matching Cricket's 2-minute, 43-second average. That's not much of a silver lining, but when your results are this poor, you look for positives where you can.