New real-world tests compare Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T's 5G networks with mixed results

New real-world tests compare Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T's 5G networks with mixed results
It's no big secret that US 5G networks are still a mess, even more than a year after the nation's major wireless service providers rushed to claim a bunch of largely meaningless milestones and firsts. But if you needed an independent overview of just how messy the US mobile 5G market is on the very eve of Samsung's highly anticipated 5G-only Galaxy S20 family release, OpenSignal has put together another thorough report based on a bunch of manual tests performed in downtown areas of select US cities in December 2019 and January 2020.

We're obviously talking about cities where US operators "had stated they had launched their 5G services" by the time the analytics firm conducted its in-depth research, which makes this new report far less representative of nationwide mobile network experiences than the 4G-focused paper released last month.

One striking similarity between these very different evaluations is how it's practically impossible to name an outright and decisive winner among the nation's big four carriers. This time around, OpenSignal ranked Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint by three key factors, and surprise, surprise, each of the three battles was won by a different mobile network operator.

Verizon is the heavyweight 5G speed champion

This shouldn't come as a shocker to anyone the least bit familiar with the current US 5G landscape, where Big Red continues to take a risky bet on mmWave spectrum. We already knew this technology enables massive upgrades in download speeds compared to 4G LTE, and indeed OpenSignal's measurements yielded a mind-boggling 722.9 Mbps 5G average for the nation's largest wireless service provider in US city downtown areas.

What's astounding is that number totally crushed T-Mobile's own mmWave 5G average of 243.1 Mbps downloads while unsurprisingly mopping the floor with Sprint's 2.5 GHz, AT&T's 850MHz, and T-Mobile's 600MHz 5G networks as well. If you find that terminology (more than) a little confusing, the main thing you need to keep in mind is that not all 5G networks are created equal.

While Verizon is relying exclusively (for now, at least) on high-band technology to vastly improve download speeds, T-Mobile and AT&T are primarily playing the low-band card, with Sprint focused on a mid-band 5G rollout

T-Mobile takes the coverage win

It's also no big surprise that the first "nationwide" 5G network delivers the steadiest "high-speed" signal, although given Magenta's bombastic claims in the last few months, we'd have expected a much better result than 53 percent. That essentially means OpenSignal testers were able to connect to a 5G signal "just over half of the time" during their measurements on T-Mobile and slightly less on Sprint.

Verizon's 6 percent score largely fits our expectations of mmWave technology, which is really bad at penetrating obstacles like walls and trees, not to mention limited in its reach of "covered" cities to begin with, but AT&T's 10.6 percent coverage result is shockingly bad.

Like T-Mobile, the nation's second-largest carrier is sacrificing speed for the sake of 5G availability with low-band spectrum, at least in theory, because the reality is both AT&T's 5G speeds and coverage are pitiful for the time being. Or at least for the time when OpenSignal's tests were conducted, which was "shortly after" AT&T started its 5G deployment.

Sprint trumps Verizon for the combined speed crown

If low-band spectrum is good for coverage and high-band mmWave technology delivers the most significant speed improvements, you might be wondering what are the strong suits of a mid-band 5G network. The answer lies primarily in the balance between 5G availability and velocity, which helped Sprint top OpenSignal's "combined 4G/5G download speed" chart for December 2019 and January 2020.

In a way, this could be considered the best indicator of the real-life impact today's 5G networks can have on your user experience, taking into account "how much time devices spent connected to each 5G network during the walk tests." 

The average combined speed results themselves are not exactly groundbreaking, but they once again suggest Verizon is betting on a losing horse with mmWave, while the (eventual) mix of T-Mobile's low-band and Sprint's mid-band 5G networks could well put "New T-Mobile" on the path to market supremacy.

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