4G LTE / 3G cellular data speed comparison: AT&T vs Verizon Wireless vs Sprint vs T-Mobile

4G LTE has brought blazingly fast Internet to our mobile devices, with speeds often even higher than what home Internet connections offer. However, not all carriers are equal in their offerings, and speeds can vary hugely on different carriers. Nowadays, most major US metropolitan areas are well covered, but speeds still differ hugely and while a carrier might deliver extremely high speeds in one area, in a different area it might deliver a much slower connection.

To see what is the current reality of US carriers’ cellular data speeds, we are comparing America’s top 4 carriers: Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. For this comparison we are looking separately at 4G and 3G speeds, as well as at latency. We have used data from the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the United States to come up with nation-wide averages (but you can also see the results per area). For the actual speeds, we are using publicly available data from OpenSignal's excellent maps. OpenSignal takes its data from over 1 million consumer devices, which is a great sample size. Here are the 20 metros we used for this comparison:

  • New York
  • Los Angeles
  • Chicago
  • Washington DC
  • San Francisco
  • Boston
  • Philadelphia
  • Dallas
  • Miami
  • Houston
  • Atlanta
  • Detroit
  • Seattle
  • Phoenix
  • Minneapolis
  • Cleveland
  • Denver
  • San Diego
  • Portland
  • Orlando

Tl;dr version

  • T-Mobile is the fastest 4G network in the United States scoring first in the 20 out of 20 major metros that we measure
  • AT&T and Verizon share the second place with very little differences in the 4G data speeds they offer
  • Sprint is a distant fourth in terms of speed, and has a lot of catching up to do
  • HOWEVER Verizon Wireless is the only one that has a 4G network that is LTE-only (not the slower HSPA+ standard) and it has the absolute best coverage
  • AT&T is the closest runner-up in terms of coverage, while T-Mobile and Sprint fall far behind
  • In terms of 3G speeds, T-Mobile and AT&T have the lead by a long shot
  • In some markets, regional carriers do a better job than the major four
  • 4G brings a 50% to 100% improvement in latencies
  • Seattle scored the highest average 4G speeds: 15.85Mbps with T-Mobile
  • New York City and San Francisco are some of the most congested 4G markets with some of the slowest 4G speeds

4G speed comparison

In this comparison, we measure 4G speeds of the four major US carriers in the 20 metros we've mentioned above. Notice that 4G here refers to both LTE and HSPA+ speeds. The results are quite revealing: T-Mobile has managed to improve its network quickly, and it is now the fastest network in all of these 20 metropolitan areas by a long shot.

Verizon Wireless and AT&T - despite their much wider coverage (that we'll discuss later) - cannot match the mind-boggling speeds of T-Mobile. The magenta-themed carrier offers over 10Mbps in many areas, and that could easily be more than your home cable provider offers. You'd also notice that there are no results for some of the carriers in some regions. The reason for this is not complete lack of coverage, but rather the fact that the speeds of the carrier fall behind the top 5 operators in terms of speed in that area.

With all this in mind, take a look at how the big four perform in terms of 4G speeds in the 20 biggest US metros.

3G speed comparison

3G as a technology is sunset by 4G and the LTE standard in particular, but some of the carriers still have wider 3G coverage and your smartphone is smart enough to switch to 3G in areas where 4G is not available. For those living in sub-urban areas 3G is particularly important.

That's why we measure the 3G speeds of the top four US carriers. Notice that Verizon Wireless has low 3G speeds in this comparison, but a lot of that is offset by the fact that it has so wide of a 4G LTE coverage, that 3G speeds on this carrier are of lesser importance.

For all else, T-Mobile and AT&T rank the highest in terms of 3G speeds across the 20 regions that we measure. Take a look at the scores, metro by metro, right below.

Latency comparison

Another key component of a good connection that provides satisfactory web-surfing experience is latency, or the ping. The lower the results in this category, the faster pages will load, the less lag there is in gaming, and the happier the user.

The first thing that is glaringly obvious is that 4G latency speeds are noticeably faster, better than the generally nearly 60% slower 3G latency speeds. We're only counting averages here, so take a look to see the slight nuances between carriers.

Coverage maps

The last, but not least component of a satisfactory experience with carriers is coverage. And in terms of coverage, Verizon Wireless is king. The carrier has a 4G network that is hundred percent LTE, with 99% coverage of its 3G network, and it covers over 97% of Americans. AT&T is your second best option for nation-wide coverage, as its LTE network has quickly expanded to cover 300 million Americans. Sprint and T-Mobile are lagging far behind in terms of coverage, and we advise you to carefully check their coverage maps, especially if you travel a lot.

In fact, whether you live in the Dakotas, or somewhere else with scarcer coverage, it's worth taking a look at the particular coverage maps for your region to pick the best carrier. Notice that smaller carriers like Cricket Wireless still excel in some particular markets (for Cricket, it's the Chicago area, but also New York-DC, as well as Mississippi and Florida), so those are also worth a look. You can also take a look at the current data coverage maps for the four major US carriers right below.

Check your coverage here:

Finally, do not hesitate to share your thoughts about each of the four carriers: which one are you using and how happy are you with your data speeds?

speed data sourced from OpenSignal.com



1. theguy2345

Posts: 1216; Member since: Jun 24, 2014

I have t-mo, and they have been improving a lot lately. One street that never has cell service ever got it a week or two ago out of the blue. It astonished me. They have always been good in my area, NJ, but they just need to keep improving if they want to keep growing. And I am surprised you got 7 seconds in New York City. Whenever I go there, I want to through my phone at the wall it is so slow.

27. LiyanaBG

Posts: 381; Member since: Nov 07, 2013

AT&T is great in New York. LTE everywhere. but they could improve there download and upload speed to match Verizon other than that they are the best for me.

37. theguy2345

Posts: 1216; Member since: Jun 24, 2014

It's 4G. It is just so congested that it is slower than 2G.

52. sgtdisturbed47

Posts: 966; Member since: Feb 02, 2012

It's not just in NY that they need to catch up. I get 30-50mbps on Verizon LTE where I live, while AT&T still doesn't even have LTE here yet.

2. Planterz

Posts: 2120; Member since: Apr 30, 2012

At home I get 25-40Mb/s down, 15-20 up with T-Mobile, but that's because they have equipment on top of my apartment building. Where I work sucks though. 11-12Mb/s down in the area, but I'm lucky to get 2Mb/s inside the building. T-Mo needs to get cracking on that 700MHz band 12.

3. Berzerk000

Posts: 4275; Member since: Jun 26, 2011

T-Mobile's speeds are a lot higher because there aren't nearly as many people on the network compared to Verizon or AT&T; as T-Mobile grows, it'll slow down, but I'm really impressed with how fast they've been expanding their coverage. Sadly they still don't have very good coverage in my little town, meanwhile I constantly get over 20 Mbps down with Verizon. Maybe once they finish their 2G to LTE upgrade I can switch back. Also, Sprint is a joke.

7. NexusPhan

Posts: 632; Member since: Jul 11, 2013

No, T-Mobile's Network will not slow down (much) if they gain a ton of users because of their implementation of wide-band LTE and their use of the advanced wireless spectrum. They will not have the problem like ATT and Verizon do becuase ATT and Verizon's LTE is carried over low band spectrum. Low band is great for cheap coverage but horrible under load.

47. bluemirage

Posts: 8; Member since: Dec 29, 2014

Really. So, if they add more customers and will everyone have the same speed? That's very interesting, and hard to believe. And you said "low band spectrum works terribly under load". Is it because T mobile don't have low band spectrum all that much. Have you ever seen any test results for low band spectrum under load?

53. Zero0

Posts: 592; Member since: Jul 05, 2012

I anticipate that T-Mobile will slow down, but not to the speeds of AT&T and Verizon (although those networks will speed up, I expect, as they improve their hardware and refarm spectrum in the future). Most of the time, when people talk about high frequency vs. low frequency, they focus on the superior coverage distance and wall penetration of low frequency spectrum. And really, this is partly why T-Mobile's coverage can be spotty, especially indoors. However, the higher frequency spectrum has more bandwidth. Think about it. A signal in the 1700MHz band oscillates more than twice as much as a signal in the 700MHz band. On a simple AM signal, this is more than twice as much data. LTE uses much more advanced signaling, so I'm sure the effect is not nearly that noticeable, but it's still there.

48. UMAFan

Posts: 14; Member since: May 14, 2012

This is a stupid comment. T-Mobile does have better spectrum and a newer LTE network to support those speeds. Also Tmobile has unlimited LTE. Verizon doesn't and has been taking it away from people upgrading while ATT throttles ppl on unlimited plans. Low band spectrum is better for coverage but Tmobiles mid band spectrum is better for capacity. Versions network can't handle unlimited

49. bluemirage

Posts: 8; Member since: Dec 29, 2014

How do you define a better spectrum? Do you think T Mobile mid band spectrum is better than others. If so, why T Mobile so desperately tries to roll out low band spectrum in some markets? And when you say newer network do imply they have better speed in majority parts of the country, or do you mean they deploy their LTE much later than everyone else They have great speeds in isolated pockets in big cities. As long as you are in those areas, you will get good speeds, the moment you step out of those areas, your speed will tank. You got unlimited data with good speed in those areas. Just find them and stay inside otherwise if you decide to move out of those areas with your CELL phone, you get what you pay for.

50. JayFiveAlive

Posts: 67; Member since: May 30, 2014

Low band spectrum is good for going longer distance and penetrating through walls. So while Verizon does indeed have much better coverage, that does not mean they have better speed. Low spectrum is good for getting coverage all over, which is very appealing to T-Mobile as currently they suck (like Sprint) outside of most major cities. It's getting better as they add towers, etc. but low band spectrum is nice for the rural areas. Not saying your wrong, just saying what low band does ;) T-Mobile doesn't have that, but they do have the fastest LTE network. Thankfully I have it even at my home.

51. bluemirage

Posts: 8; Member since: Dec 29, 2014

You are right. Low band spectrum does gets better coverage and that's why Verizon and AT&T have low band LTE almost everywhere and that's why T mobile tries to add low band spectrum to their network so it can have better coverage. On the other hand speed of the data has absolutely have nothing to do with low band, mid band or high band. They all work the same way. T Mobile network has a lot fewer customers and their speed is better but again only in those good coverage areas.( why do you think they are the first company to have Wi Fi calling. Their coverage is horrible indoors and they know it. However, even those areas once the network is loaded you will feel the pain of low speeds regardless of your network or spectrum.

54. Zero0

Posts: 592; Member since: Jul 05, 2012

"Better" spectrum is really subjective. Higher frequencies are fantastic for packing a lot of data, while lower frequencies are excellent for maximizing coverage. One could argue that Sprint is at some kind of advantage with its incredible spectrum holdings in the upper 2000MHz bands, but what we've seen in the real world is that it's very hard to maintain a network in those bands. You can transmit a lot of data, but it's difficult to reach people. T-Mobile has the advantage of being in the middle: they can send more data than Verizon or AT&T can, and for the most part, cover more than Sprint can (note that Sprint does have low-band LTE; it's just a narrow band compared to T-Mobiles mid-band LTE). Regardless of how good AWS and PCS are, T-Mobile needs lower band LTE to complement its existing network. The 700MHz network that they're rolling out (and the 600MHz network they dream of) will get the job done inside buildings, and help cover rural parts of the country where it's often not worth it to deploy a lot of towers for only a handful of people. So the reality is, a network needs both higher and lower frequencies to make it. Right now, Verizon and AT&T are trying to grab up middle bands to push their speeds higher. T-Mobile is trying to grab lower bands to expand their reach. Sprint mostly has the spectrum, it just needs to deploy backhaul and set up its towers properly.

55. bluemirage

Posts: 8; Member since: Dec 29, 2014

I have to disagree. High or mid band spectrum doesn't pack more data. It packs same amount of data as low band. The reason we have to live it high band because there is simply nothing in low band available. Trust me if T mobile has a chance to swap out all of its high band freq to low band 700 or 600, thew will do in a heartbeat. And this comment goes to every other carrier out there. T Mobile will have the best coverage and the speed assume they maintain their customer base. If they add more customers, the coverage will still be there, but will lack the speed. It will be cheaper and less complicated to implement everything in low band but until FCC sells more low band spectrum, we have to live with what we have. All in all, only low band will do the job. If low band only spectrum is not the option, you will deal with what you have. That's what T mobile is doing. Adding 700 in some cities where it can.

58. Zero0

Posts: 592; Member since: Jul 05, 2012

You can feel free to disagree that high/mid frequencies are better, but you can't disagree with the physics: higher frequencies carry more data. This is obvious in very simple amplitude modulation. If you have 2 billion cycles per second, that's 4 billion modulated amplitudes per second. If you have 700 million cycles per second, you only get 1.4 billion amplitudes. Like I said, modern networks use far more complex encoding systems, but higher frequencies give them more chances to manipulate EM waves in a shorter period of time. That doesn't change.

59. bluemirage

Posts: 8; Member since: Dec 29, 2014

You are too deep into theory. So I guess I should talk that way too. I assure you regardless of you spectrum if you have good SINR and RSRP, you can have 64 QAM otherwise you will be down to 16QAM or QPSK. Long story short, for practical purpose, you will only get best throughout when your modulation is 64 QAM. It only happens when you only have good signal and good SINR and unloaded network with nice bandwith (at least 10Mhz DL). If you have a same load, RSRP and SINR with same bandwith for low, mid and high band, data speed will not change. Your speed is only impacted by how often you get the best combination for above factors, and again it happens much more often wit low band, and that's why low band users have much better data speed experience.

62. Zero0

Posts: 592; Member since: Jul 05, 2012

Except practice is showing that the high band spectrum is faster. Perhaps this is the result of high frequencies' tendency to not cover a large distance? Smaller coverage radius per tower means more towers per pop, and thus more available channels per pop. In a large city (excluding buildings), this is advantageous.

74. bluemirage

Posts: 8; Member since: Dec 29, 2014

I agree everything except high band spectrum is faster. I have never seen any test results that shows high band is spectrum faster than low band.

75. bluemirage

Posts: 8; Member since: Dec 29, 2014

Get your test equipment and test low band and high band with the same phone, signal, SINR, load, bandwith and distance from a base station. You will see the speed is the same. High band will not be faster because it is high band.

76. Salazzi

Posts: 537; Member since: Feb 17, 2014

Then why is high band better?

77. bluemirage

Posts: 8; Member since: Dec 29, 2014

It is not. It is much worse compare to low band

78. schoenigg

Posts: 1; Member since: Mar 08, 2015

You gotta love the uneducated (or lacking in common sense, here) who disagree with Physics. Well put. Cycles per second is a great way to explain it. Hey I'm OK with it - as long as there are people like this in the world, I'll always have a good job where I can contribute a bunch to dispel statements like this.

79. Wissper

Posts: 1; Member since: May 21, 2015

This comment is a little delayed, but in the off chance that it gets resurrected, I think the problem here is that this is a moot argument. You are both arguing different concepts. One of you argues that the transfer speeds are faster on high bandwidth, which is correct, and the other argues that the carrying capacity is the same on both high and low freqs, which is also correct. They are not mutually exclusive concepts, both can exist simultaneously, and both have impact on the overall experience of the user.

4. Leo_MC

Posts: 7432; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

OMG, the worst carrier in my country has an average speed on 3G network similar to what AT&T offers in 4G...

5. Victor.H

Posts: 1062; Member since: May 27, 2011

You must be living in South Korea :)

16. TyrionLannister unregistered

The HSPA in my country offer speeds easily about 10-15 Mbps. And I live India, a country with one of the worst internet in the world. It's a shock that US LTE speeds are that low.

34. Leo_MC

Posts: 7432; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

No, Victor, I live in Romania - which, by Ookla's ranking, has the second fastest speeds in the world, double as what NK has to offer; by Akmai, it's way under US. I have contracts with both the best - by coverage and speeds - internet mobile provider - where I get on 4G+ (300 Mbps bandwith): ~50 Mbps on the phone, 100 Mbps with a dedicated 4G modem; 10-30 ms latency (I have never had speeds lower than 30 Mbps) - and the worst - where I get on 3G (14-21 Mbps bandwith) ~3-5 Mbps with ~200 ms latency (more on the 3 side). TyrionLannister, I easily get 100 Mbps but averages are but half.

66. TyrionLannister unregistered

Dude, you can't get 100 Mbps on 3G. HSPA means 3G. On 4G, I can get 40-50 Mbps too. On my wired connection I clock about 500 Mbps.

67. Leo_MC

Posts: 7432; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

Actually, according to IMT-Advanced standards, theoretical 3G speeds (HSPA+ or 3G+) are 168 Mbps. 4G is a service that requires speeds of minimum 100 Mbps for high mobility (cars, speedy trains etc) and 1 Gbps for low mobility (when walking on the street). Because US providers could not offer such speeds (I have already said, AT&T has the average the same as the worst provider in RO) they decided to promote LTE as being 4G, which is simply wrong. The first comercial service to respect 4G standards is LTE-A (which is what I got); plus WiMAX v2. It's rather simple: 3G means speeds up to 100 Mbps (168 in theory). 4G means minimum speeds of 100 Mbps (the best was 5 Gbps).

Latest Stories

This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. You can order presentation-ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers at https://www.parsintl.com/phonearena or use the Reprints & Permissions tool that appears at the bottom of each web page. Visit https://www.parsintl.com/ for samples and additional information.