There’s more 5G available in big cities. But which carrier is fastest?

November 19, 2020, 5:13 PM UTC

Wireless carriers in the middle of rolling out new super-fast 5G networks have focused on densely populated urban areas at the start. So for its latest 5G speed report, network testing firm Opensignal focused on five major cities: Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C.

Verizon came out ahead, with an average 5G download speed of 438 megabits per second, fast enough to download a high-definition movie in less than one minute. T-Mobile was second at 226 Mbps, and AT&T finished third at 109 Mbps.

All three carriers are spending tens of billions of dollars to add 5G. But it will take several more years before the superfast technology, which can theoretically offer download speeds 10 to 100 times faster than an average 4G connection, is widely available. And customers must upgrade to 5G compatible phones, like the new iPhone 12 line up, which starts at $700. Although consumers don’t rely on downloading much anymore—because they can stream movies and music on the go—the faster connections will eventually enable new applications, like mobile virtual reality games and multi-angle live sports broadcasts.

The Opensignal results, measured from March through October, reflected only the speediest form of 5G that the carriers are deploying. The companies are installing multiple flavors of 5G and some types are faster than others. Opensignal mainly focused on 5G over high-frequency airwave bands, like 28 GHz and 2.5 GHz, the fastest version available. It is also the hardest to find and has not been fully deployed even across the five major cities tested.

Verizon says its high-frequency network is available in parts of 55 cities. Analysts say it covers about 2 million people so far. T-Mobile says its 2.5 GHz network covers about 30 million people so far with a goal of reaching 100 million people by year end. AT&T hasn’t said much about its fast 5G plans lately, but offers coverage in parts of 35 cities.

Most 5G available in the U.S. is in lower frequency bands more typically used by cell phones such as 600 MHz and 850 MHz. The three carriers say they offer “nationwide” 5G coverage via this slower version.

Unsurprisingly, Opensignal’s 5G tests that included those bands found slower average speeds in the five cities. For example, T-Mobile’s average of 53 Mbps in Washington, where it has not deployed the faster type of 5G, was little faster than its 4G network.

Opensignal collects average download speeds from apps installed on millions of consumers phones, rather than by driving around with its own test phones, as rival Rootmetrics does. The crowd-sourced data provides many more measurements but without the same exact comparability of more planned phone tests.

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