Fastest Wireless Carrier of 2020: It's Still Verizon
When it comes to LTE, how fast your smartphone can download and upload data often depends on where you are. But if your phone is tied to Verizon's LTE network, there's a pretty good chance your data speeds are going to beat everyone else's.
5G may be the future of wireless service, but LTE remains the present. (See the section at the end of this page for the latest on the status of 5G.) For those of us who don't live in the specific areas where 5G coverage has launched, LTE is going to remain the way most of us get our high-speed data. And when it comes to LTE, Verizon is still tops.
After testing wireless network speeds at multiple locations in eight U.S. cities, we found that Verizon consistently delivered the fastest LTE. The carrier swept all three categories we measured — average download speed, average upload speed and the time it takes to download an app from Google Play. This is the third consecutive time Verizon has topped our network speed rankings. (Those rankings reflect our tests from 2018, but stay tuned — we'll be updating in the coming months with new LTE numbers as well as 5G testing.)
Which carrier is the runner-up depends on what metric you value. AT&T had the second-fastest average download speed in our testing, a little less than 4 Mbps faster than T-Mobile. But T-Mobile posted the second-fastest average upload time after Verizon, finishing ahead of AT&T. Ultimately, the runner-up nod goes to AT&T, which finished second in our app download test with an average time of 35 seconds; T-Mobile finished third with a 50-second average.
While Sprint may have placed last among the Big Four carriers, it posted the biggest improvement, doubling its average download speed from the last time we tested. It also performed dramatically better in our app download test, narrowing down the gap with T-Mobile to 7 seconds. It's clear that Sprint's efforts to improve its 4G capabilities ahead of its planned merger with T-Mobile are paying off.
|Average Download Speed||Average Upload Speed||Average App Download Time (Min: Sec)|
|Verizon||53.3 Mbps||17.5 Mbps||0:28|
|AT&T||37.1 Mbps||12.9 Mbps||0:35|
|T-Mobile||36.3 Mbps||16.4 Mbps||0:50|
|Metro by T-Mobile||32.8 Mbps||13 mbps||1:22|
|Sprint||32.5 Mbps||4 Mbps||0:57|
|Straight Talk||31.1 Mbps||15.6 Mbps||1:06|
|Cricket||6.5 Mbps||5.8 Mbps||1:00|
|Boost||29.4 Mbps||3.7 Mbps||1:29|
Outside the Big Four, Metro by T-Mobile (formerly Metro PCS) remains the fastest discount carrier, riding the strength of T-Mobile's network to the fourth-fastest average download speed. But Straight Talk, which lagged other carriers in previous tests, turned in a stellar performance when using a SIM card tied to Verizon's leading network. (Straight Talk uses other carriers' networks, too, and when we tested with different SIMs, the speeds weren't as fast.)
How They Finished: City-By-City Results
- New York: Verizon (Runner-up: Straight Talk)
- Philadelphia: Sprint (Runner-up: AT&T)
- Houston: Verizon (Runner-up: T-Mobile)
- Dallas: T-Mobile (Runner-up: Verizon)
- San Francisco: AT&T (Runner-up: Verizon)
- Seattle: Verizon (Runner-up: T-Mobile)
- Los Angeles: Verizon (Runner-up: T-Mobile)
- Chicago: Verizon (Runner-up: AT&T/Sprint)
How We Tested LTE Networks
We tested eight popular carriers. In addition to the Big Four wireless providers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — we also looked at four discount carriers: Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, Metro and Straight Talk. (In our past tests, we've included Virgin Mobile, but during our test period, Virgin was positioning itself as an iPhone-focused carrier, and we use Samsung Galaxy phones in our testing to ensure a level playing field — iPhones use different modems, depending on the carrier you select.)
We conducted our testing using the Galaxy S9. Seven of the carriers we tested supplied us with a test unit tied to their network. In the case of Boost, we bought an S9 directly from the company tied to its network.
We used the same phones to test the different networks in eight cities. Adam Ismail conducted testing in New York and Philadelphia; Jorge Jimenez ran tests in Houston and Dallas; Philip Michaels tested in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle; and Meghan McDonough conducted testing in Chicago. We conducted our testing from June to August 2018.
In each of the cities, we selected six test sites based on geographic diversity and popularity. Those test sites included an equal mix of outdoor and indoor testing. We ran Ookla's Speedtest.net app five times at each location to record an average download and upload speed for each carrier. We also downloaded Discord (a 40MB file) from Google Play and timed how long the app took to install; if the app didn't download after 5 minutes, we stopped the test and listed its download time at 5:00 for that location.
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 different carriers rank in our tests.
- Average Download: 53.3 Mbps
- Average Upload: 17.5 Mbps
- Average App Download Time: 28 seconds
It's no mystery why Verizon has tightened its grip on the top rank in our network testing. It had both the fastest download and upload averages across our eight test cities. It also turned in the fastest average time on our app download test, with a blazing-fast 28-second average. In fact, in only one city did it take longer than a minute to download Discord on Verizon's network.
Verizon was the top-performing network in more than half of the cities where we tested. In three of the cities where Verizon didn't take the top spot (Dallas and San Francisco), it was the runner-up. The only city where Big Red missed the mark was Philadelphia, where it had the worst download speeds of any of the Big Four carriers.
Verizon's best performances were recorded in New York and Chicago, the country's two largest cities. The carrier not only had the best download speeds in both those cities but also finished well ahead of the next-fastest carrier.
In New York, Verizon's 84.6-Mbps average was 54 percent faster than the 54.8-Mbps average Straight Talk recorded (using Verizon's network, too). In Chicago, Verizon's 85.8-Mbps download speed was 33 percent faster than runner-up Sprint's.
- Average Download: 37.1 Mbps
- Average Upload: 12.9 Mbps
- Average App Download Time: 35 seconds
AT&T had the second-fastest average download speed at 37.1 Mbps, just edging out T-Mobile. While AT&T's average upload speed of 12.9 Mbps was only fifth-best among the wireless services we tested, it had the second-best score on our app download test, which in our book puts it just ahead of T-Mobile.
AT&T can claim one city win in San Francisco, where it enjoyed a home-field advantage when we tested outside the San Francisco Giants' ballpark (which just happens to have AT&T's name on its sign).
But AT&T is more than a one-trick pony in the City by the Bay. It was the only carrier not to struggle when we tested in the Haight-Ashbury district, where it trounced the competition; and it also fared well at tests in Golden Gate Park and the Duboce Triangle neighborhood.
We also saw strong performance for AT&T in Philadelphia and Chicago, where it was the runner-up in our tests. (It split that honor with Sprint in the Windy City.) The carrier's third-place finish behind Verizon and T-Mobile in Los Angeles was also respectable.
- Average Download: 36.3 Mbps
- Average Upload: 16.4 Mbps
- Average App Download Time: 50 seconds
T-Mobile just missed out on finishing second in our rankings. Its average download speed of 36.3 was just behind AT&T's, though it had the second-best average upload speed at 16.4, trailing only Verizon.
In the end, it came down to our app download test: T-Mobile's average time of 50 seconds was good enough for third, but 15 seconds behind AT&T's average.
If you live in Dallas, T-Mobile has the top network with the best download speeds in that city. The Uncarrier also fared well in Seattle, Houston and Los Angeles, where it was runner-up to Verizon.
4. Metro by T-Mobile
- Average Download: 32.8 Mbps
- Average Upload: 13 Mbps
- Average App Download Time: 1 minute and 22 seconds
Metro by T-Mobile, known as MetroPCS when we ran our tests, benefits from the strong network of its parent company. Metro's average download speed of 32.8 Mbps was less than 4 Mbps different from T-Mobile 36.3-Mbps average, and the difference in upload speed (16.4 for T-Mobile, 13 Mbps for Metro) was similarly narrow.
If there's a gap between Metro and T-Mobile, we found it in our app download test. Metro's average time of 1 minute and 22 seconds was more than 30 seconds off T-Mobile's pace. Blame bad results in Houston and Chicago, where Metro's app download performance was significantly slower than T-Mobile's. (In Los Angeles and Philadelphia, our download times on Metro were slightly faster than they were on T-Mobile.)
One of the risks of using a wireless provider that relies on another carrier's network is that your data may get slowed down when there's a lot of traffic. That seems to have been the case in Houston when we tested and to a lesser extent to Chicago. For the most part, though, Metro's results were closely aligned with T-Mobile's upload and download speeds, with Metro actually finishing ahead of its parent company in some test locations.
- Average Download: 32.5 Mbps
- Average Upload: 4 Mbps
- Average App Download Time: 57 seconds
Sprint still lags its other Big Four rivals in our speed testing, as it has the previous two years we've tested LTE networks. Its average download speed of 32.5 Mbps fell just behind the average for Metro by T-Mobile, while its 4-Mbps average upload speed was the second-worst speed we recorded. (Only Sprint subsidiary Boost was slower.)
But Sprint was noticeably more competitive in this round of testing. The carrier turned in the top performance in Philadelphia, winning our app download tests and turning in the best average download speed. (Only Boost had a better average in Philly, and it uses Sprint's network.) Sprint was also runner-up in Chicago (where it split that honor with AT&T) and turned in decent third-place finishes in New York and Seattle.
On our app download test, Sprint finished with the fourth-best average time, taking 57 seconds to download Discord. That's 7 seconds slower than T-Mobile.
6. Straight Talk
- Average Download: 31.1 Mbps
- Average Upload: 15.6 Mbps
- Average App Download Time: 1 minute and 6 seconds
Straight Talk has brought up the rear when we've previously tested speeds on wireless carriers. That wasn't the case this time around, however: Its download speeds were within shouting distance of Metro and Sprint, and its average upload speed of 15.8 Mbps was actually the third-best we recorded. We think Verizon's network deserves much of the credit, though.
When you sign up with Straight Talk, you get a choice of SIMs tied to each of the Big Four carriers' networks. For our testing, we used a Verizon-tied SIM card. Straight Talk's numbers never quite matched Verizon's — download averages were off anywhere from 29 percent to 386 percent, depending on the city we tested in — but rarely did Straight Talk bring up the rear in testing.
To see if our theory that the network you use with Straight Talk plays a major role in how strong your performance is, we went back to some test sites in New York, replacing our Verizon-tied SIM card in our Straight Talk-supplied Galaxy S9 with a T-Mobile one. T-Mobile had the slowest download speeds of the Big Four Carriers in New York, and sure enough, the Straight Talk numbers weren't as good using that network as they were with the Verizon SIM. If you opt for Straight Talk, pay close attention to which Big Four carrier has the best performance in your area.
- Average Download: 6.5 Mbps
- Average Upload: 5.8 Mbps
- Average App Download Time: 1 minute
Cricket uses AT&T's network, so you'd think that it would benefit from AT&T's fast speeds in the same way that Metro rides T-Mobile's LTE coattails. But that's not the case, and it's no secret why: Cricket warns you that it's going to cap your download speeds at 8 Mbps on all but one of its monthly data plans, and we can verify that the carrier isn't lying. We recorded an average download speed of 6.5 Mbps — by far the worst of any carrier.
If there's any consolation for Cricket, it's that the speed cap didn't impact our real-world test. Cricket downloaded Discord in an average of 1 minute flat. That's nearly twice as long as AT&T took, but it beat the average results for Metro, Straight Talk and Boost.
Cricket's average upload speed of 5.8 Mbps, while not great, still beat out Boost and Sprint.
- Average Download: 29.4 Mbps
- Average Upload: 3.7 Mbps
- Average App Download Time: 1 minute and 29 seconds
Boost's average download speed of 29.4 Mbps in the eight cities where we tested is much faster than Cricket's hampered-by-speed-caps average. So how come Boost finishes in last place? Because it fares worse than Cricket and other carriers in everything else we tested.
Boost, which is currently owned by Sprint (at least until it's spun off as part of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger) and uses its parent company's network, had an average upload speed of 3.7 Mbps. On our app download test, Boost averaged 1 minute and 29 seconds, finishing 5 seconds behind the next-slowest carrier.
While Boost generally matched the performance of its parent carrier Sprint, in a few cities we saw noticeable differences in download speeds — and that hurt Boost's overall numbers. Boost's download speed was 30 percent slower in Seattle and 61 percent off Sprint's pace in Houston. Only in New York did Boost match Sprint's time for downloading the Discord app; everywhere else, the discount carrier was anywhere from 12 seconds to 1 minute and 59 seconds slower than Sprint in that test.
Our LTE testing provides only some of the picture on how wireless networks are performing. Third-party testing firms, who do nothing but evaluate network reach, speed and latency, periodically publish their own results, and it's worth paying attention to these reports to get a fuller idea of how network performance is evolving, especially for reports appearing after our tests were conducted, as those can give you a sense of how networks have continued to improve. With the FCC reporting that wireless carrier maps aren't always accurate, it's more important than ever to pay attention to reports from third-party testers.
OpenSignal's January 2020 report reflects data collected between September and December last year. AT&T posted the fastest 4G download speeds, pulling ahead of T-Mobile (which topped the July 2019 report) and Verizon. T-Mobile had the best upload speeds while Verizon took the top prize for 4G availability and video streaming experience.
AT&T also fared well in a July 2019 report by Ookla, where the carrier earned earn the highest speed score for the first half of 2019. T-Mobile placed second while Verizon finished third. Sprint, which finished fourth, had the second largest year-over-year improvement in Ookla's numbers.
As for RootMetrics, its January 2020 report on network performance during the second half of last year put Verizon in the top spot for the 13th consecutive testing period. AT&T was runner-up in five of six categories, and split honors with Verizon for texting performance. AT&T also had the best national aggregate median download speed, according to RootMetrics.
5G: The Future of Wireless Networks
We've focused on LTE in our testing because that's the fastest network available for most smartphone users these days. But that's changing as we speak, now that wireless carriers are launching their 5G networks. Verizon ended last year with 5G service in 31 cities; it also has coverage in 17 NFL stadiums and a handful of arenas. (Note that Verizon's 5G coverage only reaches certain sections of stadiums and arenas and not the entire venue.) Sprint's 5G service now available in nine cities, reaching 16 million people.
T-Mobile made its initial 5G network available in six cities last June, and has since launched a nationwide 5G network that covers 5,000 cities. (This network uses sub-600Mhz spectrum, which isn't as fast as some of the 5G networks we've seen to date; see our hands-on with the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren to find out how T-Mobile's network measures up.) AT&T's 5G Plus service now reaches 35 cities, but it's limited to business customers. Like T-Mobile, AT&T launched a 5G network that uses low-band spectrum in December — it won't be as fast as the millimeter-wave-based 5G Plus service, but it will reach more people. That's currently in 45 cities.
Wondering what 5G service will mean for your future smartphone? Now that we've had a chance to test AT&T's network after earlier tests for Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, we've now been able to experience 5G with all four carriers, using the devices that work on their respective networks (the Galaxy S10 5G in the case of AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile and an LG V50 ThinQ for Sprint). RootMetrics has done some testing, too, and not surprisingly, it found that Verizon's high-speed network is the fastest, though other carrier have wider reach.
Here's a more detailed look at what carriers are doing with launching 5G networks.