Which carrier offers the fastest mobile data and coverage: 4G / 3G speed comparison


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

4G speed comparison


First, let’s start off with 4G connectivity speeds. Surprisingly for some, T-Mobile has the lead with the absolutely fastest download speeds (averaging 8.1Mbps) across the 20 biggest US metros. AT&T is a close runner-up, scoring an average downlink speed of 7.64Mbps. Verizon gets the distant third spot with speeds averaging 5.59Mbps, while Sprint scores (now, traditionally) the lowest speeds of 4.62Mbps. Those are the nation averages, but we would recommend you look at not just the nation averages, but also at your particular area to see which carrier has the fastest speeds there.

We have used download speeds as the most common denominator, but if you look at upload speeds, the situation is radically different: Verizon, AT&T and Sprint all hover around the 6Mbps mark, while T-Mobile is much slower, averaging just below 3Mbps. This means that if uploading content on the go in the fastest possible manner is a priority to you, T-Mobile is probably not the best choice.

3G speed comparison


Turning to 3G speeds, we have a situation similar to the one in the 4G rankings: T-Mobile has a huge lead in download speeds, followed by AT&T, while Verizon and Sprint are distant runner-ups. Unlike 4G, though, upload speeds on 3G are very similar among all major carriers, averaging just above 1.3Mbps (only Sprint is slower at around 1mbps).


Average US latency speeds


Finally, we also have latency data. Latency measures the time it takes a network to transfer a packet from the source to the receiver. Simply put, the lower the latency, the better your Internet experience. Latency matters in all sorts of scenarios (you’d notice how fast a page loads in your browser), but it’s crucial in situations like video conferencing and gaming. Take a look at the US nation-wide data below, to see the carriers offering the fastest latencies.


Coverage


Finally, we ought to say that we've looked at speeds and latency only, but we have not compared the actual coverage of the four biggest US carriers. 4G (and 4G LTE in particular) is one area where Verizon Wireless has the clear lead, as it covers over 500 markets, and that number includes a lot of the smaller towns where other areas don't have any outreach. Verizon's LTE network reaches over 305 million people at the moment, the most of any carrier.

AT&T was the second company to start its massive 4G LTE roll-out, and it's also the second in terms of coverage. AT&T's network covers over 270 million people, and the carrier plans to extend its coverage to nearly 300 million people by the end of the year. 

Sprint started building its 4G LTE network later than the big two, but it's stepped up coverage lately, and is on its way to reach its target of 250 million people covered by mid-2014. We should, however, note that it would take longer, though, for all these markets and people to get the Sprint Spark network upgrade, which brings faster speeds (Spark delivers 4G LTE over the 700MHz channel).

Finally, T-Mobile, another relative newcomer to the 4G LTE game, is extremely aggressive in building a fast and reliable LTE network, and the results are already apparent in terms of speed. The 'Un-carrier' has recently unveiled plans to convert its EDGE stations to 4G LTE, and while we don't have any hard numbers for T-Mobile, we know that the nation's fourth-largest operator plans to cover over 230 million people by mid-2014, 250 million people by the end of the year, and more than 301 million by mid-2015.

Finally, we should say that you should carefully look at all these numbers before making a definite choice - choosing the right carrier is about picking not just the fastest, but the one with adequate coverage in your area. With this, we pass the ball to you: what’s your experience with your carrier? Are you happy with the 3G/4G speeds and coverage you’re getting? Let us know in the comments below.

reference: OpenSignal maps, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile coverage maps

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90 Comments

1. NoFanboy

Posts: 300; Member since: Nov 18, 2013

But what's the point of having the fastest if you never get LTE anywhere?

6. youlookfoolish

Posts: 193; Member since: Dec 14, 2012

Bingo.

9. Augustine

Posts: 1043; Member since: Sep 28, 2013

Because, unless you're a traveling salesman, you live somewhere not anywhere?

17. g2a5b0e unregistered

Exactly. People talk so much about coverage, but that's not an important factor for everyone. I rarely leave my city/state area. If the coverage where I am is great, why should I be worried about what someone else across the country is getting? The answer: I shouldn't.

63. axllebeer

Posts: 272; Member since: Apr 05, 2011

In my small city in southeast OH, I average 15-21 Mps on the download on Sprint and about 6-8 on the upload. I'm happy. I don't travel far often but 77 north to 70 west in OH to columbus is well covered.

66. Doakie

Posts: 2478; Member since: May 06, 2009

LOL! It says Sprint has 4 Mbps LTE in Seattle. That's a total lie. I had 2 Mbps downloads. Total BS. SPRINT SUCKS!

70. reckless562

Posts: 1153; Member since: Sep 09, 2013

Well Said!!! whats the point of being covered everywhere, and have the Fastest speed.........IF YOU HAVE ONLY 10 GIGS TO USE????????? point.....if its FAST, im USING IT to download/stream movies (n porn :D ) n play ps3/4 n xbox games!!!!!! so yea UNLIMITED data all the way! and dont live in a Data Cage!! ........if u cant use 10 gigs of data on ur smart phone, ur NOT using it very Smartly!!!! so go get Sprint or TMO if ur like me n not Made of money (not yet neway :D ) kuz i can download a blueray movie or game torrent off 1. frostwire for android or 2.my hotspot on my laptop, n thats like ATLEAST 5 gigs....... so yea gud luck goin over n having to Buy more Data on at&t or vzw.....

24. jroc74

Posts: 6023; Member since: Dec 30, 2010

Bingo. Look, I was a Verizon customer for many, many years. Always touted their coverage. But now.....I view these carriers in a different light. I cant wait to get on T Mo or AT&T's network.

45. lsutigers

Posts: 832; Member since: Mar 08, 2009

I agree that not everyone needs the Verizon coverage area, particularly for what you have to pay for it. That said, I have Verizon because I do travel for work all the time (not a salesman) and need the coverage. Our company uses Sprint and honestly there are very few places where I get native service with one and not the other. Additionally, Sprint and Verizon have roaming agreements so I rarely lose service. As for speeds, nationwide avg for TMO is 8.1, VZW is 5.59 and Sprint is 4.62. Not a big difference in the grand scheme of things. Also, those numbers dont include Sprint Spark which is a lot faster. But with all this talk about speed, does it really matter? I have used my smartphone at 6mbps and 40mbps and you CANNOT tell the difference. HD videos which are about as intense a strain on a network load fine at 2mbps on 3G. Hotspot is a different story and for that Spark is king.

69. reckless562

Posts: 1153; Member since: Sep 09, 2013

i like spark.......Boom!!! AAAAHHHH my HAAANNDD!!!! .....lol idk :D

13. PBXtech

Posts: 1032; Member since: Oct 21, 2013

Target. Most of the US population lives within 20 miles of a major city. It's business to target the highest population areas first and build outward from there.

20. av911 unregistered

What good is having the coverage with the slowass speed?

22. Adammcc

Posts: 6; Member since: Mar 19, 2014

vv ww.speedtest.net/my-result/a/568047740

64. axllebeer

Posts: 272; Member since: Apr 05, 2011

s**t!

34. PAPINYC

Posts: 2315; Member since: Jul 30, 2011

Thank you, all my friends in NY with T-Mobile have to use Wi-Fi when they travel to cities like Miami, Dallas, San Fransisco, Seattle, etc, so, what's the freakin' use??

55. czarniko253

Posts: 12; Member since: Jan 07, 2014

You are so very wrong about seattle, around the city I always get at least 40mbps on my note3

56. czarniko253

Posts: 12; Member since: Jan 07, 2014

You are so very wrong about seattle, around the city I always get at least 40mbps on my note3

57. andynaija

Posts: 1262; Member since: Sep 08, 2012

1. Either your friends are using a different carrier other than T-Mobile. 2. They must be using Wi-Fi so they don't reach their data cap. 3. You're trying to downplay T-Mobile, because the DFW metro, and all the other cities you mentioned, are covered with excellent T-Mobile signal.

60. g2a5b0e unregistered

Exactly. He's a troll & a sh*tty one at that.

68. reckless562

Posts: 1153; Member since: Sep 09, 2013

whats the point of being covered everywhere, and have the Fastest speed.........IF YOU HAVE ONLY 10 GIGS TO USE?????????

71. g2a5b0e unregistered

What do you keep blabbing on about? For 99%+ of consumers, 10GB a month is more than enough.

83. reckless562

Posts: 1153; Member since: Sep 09, 2013

blabing????? if 10 gigs is plenty, then they dont know the true power of their phone!!!! why does a phone cost so much? kuz it can do WAYYYYY more that 10 Gigs worh of stuff. why do providers charge so much? kuz the KNOW that phones can do alot, n if ppl wana do alot on their phones, they gona have to Pay!! greedy vzw will lose once the other companies (not at&t) get their 4G networks together

2. harvardale

Posts: 51; Member since: Jul 22, 2011

I wish they would have done Columbus, OH. Verizon's LTE absolutely blows here.

11. papss unregistered

Ha! I live in Cincinnati area

12. irellemot

Posts: 109; Member since: Nov 29, 2012

They should have tested the Kansas City area. Its hard not to get at least 12 Mbps here, on average I get about 20 on my nexus 5. Back when they began rolling it out here, believe it or not I got 47 on my old gnex.

61. rdaex

Posts: 152; Member since: Oct 24, 2012

Buddy and me did speed tests in Grove City... His speed(VZW) was .5 megs on LTE, mine (TMO) was almost 20. Thats ridiculous.. and I cant believe people buy the 'network' hype.

82. harvardale

Posts: 51; Member since: Jul 22, 2011

Yep. I consistently get 0.5-2 down in Columbus. Once I get about 25 miles outside of Columbus it jumps to 10+.

65. axllebeer

Posts: 272; Member since: Apr 05, 2011

Most areas of Columbus Sprints LTE is pretty awesome. Fewer customers, less strain on the network :)

3. moronman66

Posts: 162; Member since: Jan 09, 2012

I've got to say, I like T-Mobile. I have LTE where I am (around Seattle, WA), and it's honestly reliable. that being said, when I traveled to eastern Washington, I had 2g along the way and LTE in Spokane. Not the most coverage, but good enough for me and i get unlimited and I don't have to deal with sprint lol

4. WillieFDiaz

Posts: 127; Member since: Dec 22, 2010

Sprint Spark does not deliver LTE over 700Mhz channel.. Its over the 2.5Ghz frequency.

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