Wireless networks are always getting faster, and carriers are often quick to point out the progress they’ve made investing in their infrastructure for the benefit of their customers. It’s why we put together our annual assessment of the fastest networks in the U.S. — to put their claims to the test.
Credit: ShutterstockAnd this year’s results presented some surprises. Yes, once again, Verizon was the fastest — but it’s the rest of the rankings that tell just as interesting story.
How Sprint performed
The next five spots after Verizon— from AT&T in second place with an average download speed 37 Mbps to Sprint in fifth with a 32 Mbps average — are separated by just 5 Mbps. In other words, even customers who aren’t tied to the fastest carriers still get respectable performance.
In fact, when you break down the results by city, some of those carriers that were slower on average overall begin to look even better. Sprint had the fastest network in Philadelphia, where its prepaid subsidiary Boost posted the best average download speed; Sprint was right behind by a single megabit-per-second. Sprint also finished second in Chicago as well, where the Now Network’s towers averaged 64 Mbps to Verizon’s 84 Mbps.
Sure, 20 Mbps is a sizable gap. But given that most other carriers finished in the 50 Mbps range in Chicago, Sprint’s result isn’t too shabby. And before you sing Verizon’s praises, it’s important to note that Big Red struggled in specific cities as well, like Philadelphia and Dallas, where it averaged 17 Mbps and 20 Mbps, respectively.
Trading performance for plan pricing
That’s a reminder that no carrier is perfect: even the fastest ones have weak points. However, the gaps between the fastest and slowest networks are narrowing, and that leaves wireless carriers like Sprint in a favorable position — especially because it can offer more competitive service plans to compensate for its slightly slower performance.
Sprint’s Unlimited Plus plan, which offers unrestricted high speed LTE data until you’ve used more than 50 GB in a billing cycle, costs $70 a month. T-Mobile’s One unlimited option starts at the same price, but restricts video streaming to standard definition. Meanwhile, AT&T and Verizon’s compatible plans are $10 and $15 more expensive for a single line of unlimited data. While it’s true Sprint users do have to put up with slower data speeds on average, they do pay a lower monthly rate for their troubles.
An overview of data speeds across all eight carriers tested this year. Second-place AT&T and fifth-place Sprint were separated only by 5 Mbps in downloads. (Credit: Tom's Guide)We asked Sprint users what they thought of the service on Reddit. Most of the complaints had more to do with customer service than performance, and while one commenter lamented poor service in rural areas, they also praised the network’s coverage during a cross-country trip, saying they traveled 1,000 miles before encountering a dead zone.
And if you happen to be a Sprint customer, there are reasons to be excited about what the carrier is planning. In the first half of next year, Sprint and LG are partnering to release their first 5G phone, which is likely to be the first 5G phone from any of the big four wireless companies.
Of course, the success of that phone will be largely dependent on Sprint’s initial 5G rollout and whether its planned merger with T-Mobile wins regulatory approval. (Both carriers have argued that combining forces is critical to their 5G plans.) And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the carrier does have ground to cover where LTE is concerned, too.
Sprint’s average upload speeds were a measly 4 Mbps across all eight cities Tom’s Guide tested in. That was good for second to last among all networks. AT&T, the third-fastest postpaid brand, still managed 12 Mbps. Sprint also finished last among postpaids in terms of app download time. Gaming chat app Discord (which measures 37 MB in size) took about a minute on average to download using Sprint’s towers. That’s roughly twice as long as it took Verizon and AT&T.
Sprint’s performance with regard to download speeds was eye-opening this year. The carrier might not be quite as behind as its reputation suggests. If you’re willing to part with some speed for a little extra cash in your wallet, Sprint’s not a bad choice.
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