Which Mobile Network Is Really the Fastest?

July 26, 2018, 7:00 AM UTC

On Thursday, wireless testing firm RootMetrics released its latest rankings of major mobile carriers’ networks. As has been the case for some years, the firm dubbed Verizon’s network best overall, with the fastest average download speeds and the best coverage. But other reports in recent weeks have come to different conclusions. Ookla’s report last week, for example, dubbed T-Mobile’s network as the best. So which mobile network really is the fastest and why do the different firms rank them differently? It all depends on how you ask the question.

Rootmetrics Crowns Verizon

For the 10th consecutive time, RootMetrics rankings favored Verizon, though the firm also found improving performance at AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. RootMetrics has a scientifically reproducible, if expensive, method of compiling its ratings. The firm sends cars with test equipments driving on specific routes all over the country to take tests of download speeds, coverage, reliability, and texting and call quality. For its first half 2018 rankings, RootMetrics testers drove nearly 228,000 miles and performed 4 million tests. The method ensures an even playing field in the sense that all four carriers are compared in the same spots with the same kinds of phones. Below the national level, RootMetrics also posts data about test results at the state and metropolitan areas.

It’s worth digging into the local results based on where you spend most of your time. For example, in the 125 individual metro areas, Verizon won or shared winning 602 category awards, T-Mobile won or shared 454, AT&T has 292 and Sprint 114. If you live in Flint, Mich., T-Mobile has by far the highest average download speed. AT&T’s has the fastest downloads in Indianapolis and Sprint beat its rivals in Youngstown, Ohio.

Ookla Says T-Mobile Is Fastest

The tests done by Ookla are completely different. The firm tracks some 3 million users of wireless speed testing apps and compiles the results of all of their soundings (524 million separate tests in the first half of 2018 alone) to measure the average download speed on different networks. T-Mobile ranked first at 27.9 Megabits per second, Verizon was second at 26 Mbps, AT&T was third at 22.2 Mbps, and Sprint was fourth at 20.4 Mbps. Obviously, the crowdsourced results provide many more data points that the more rigorous tests of Rootmetrics. But the results may have as much to do with where customers clustered and which phones they used (Samsung and Google’s latest phones average much higher download speeds than recent iPhones, for example). The Ookla tests don’t reveal as much about the breadth of network coverage, since users can’t run a speed test where they have no signal at all.

Then What About J.D. Power?

The well known consumer rankings firm doesn’t send test equipment out into the field or measure app performance. Instead, it polls consumers and asks for their subjective opinions. In its most recent wireless poll, also released last week, customers were asked about network, messaging, and data quality, along with how common callers experienced problems. In five out of six regions of the country, Verizon ranked highest and in the final area, the north central states, it tied for first with US Cellular.

AT&T came in second in most regions, though it was nipped by T-Mobile in the southeast and the west. Sprint trailed in fourth place in five out of six regions–only in the northeast did T-Mobile grab the bottom spot.

Anybody Else Want to Weigh In?

Some new contenders are also seeking to crown the fastest wireless network with tweaks to some of the prevailing methodologies. A newcomer called Tutela Insights uses crowdsourced data from actual phones, but without requiring users to run a speed testing app. The company instead collects network quality information anonymously in the background. It found Verizon had the fastest average download speed nationwide, but T-Mobile had the fastest upload speeds. Also last month, PC Magazine released its own tests in 36 cities using the drive testing method. Verizon tied or won in 20 places, followed by T-Mobile which grabbed or tied for the top spot in 15 cities. It also found all four carriers improving from last year in most places.

What Do the Carriers Say?

AT&T (T) didn’t have anything to add to the various test results. Sprint (S), T-Mobile (TMUS), and Verizon had much more to say.

Verizon (VZ) sees RootMetrics drive testing method as “the best apples to apples comparison out there,” vice president Mike Haberman said. But Verizon has also done well in more subjective polling from J.D. Power and the crowdsourced results from Tutela, he said. As to Ookla, Haberman noted that about 40% of all the test results from rural areas in the report were from Verizon customers. Such areas, where Haberman says Verizon has better coverage, are often slower download areas, too. Verizon’s overall lower average speed is more a result of having greater coverage in such areas, he said.

Sprint cited its improvements. “Recent reports…all show a similar trend, that Sprint is by far the most improved carrier year-over-year in download speeds,” the fourth-largest mobile player said in a statement. “Furthermore, while the differences in network benchmarks are probably not discernible to most consumers, the difference in price certainly is, and Sprint is the clear price leader.”

T-Mobile dismissed the RootMetrics report. “Billions of actual experiences from real, un-biased, un-compensated, paying customers across all networks using their own phones everywhere they go, indoors and out, prove that T-Mobile’s LTE network is neck-and-neck with Verizon,” chief technology officer Neville Ray said in a statement.

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