Verizon vs T-Mobile vs AT&T: who's winning the 5G wars as of early 2021?

Verizon vs T-Mobile vs AT&T: who's winning the 5G wars as of early 2021?
Just a little over a month after seeing T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T lay out their 5G network expansion and upgrade plans for the rest of 2021 and beyond, it's time to take a fresh look at the current status, performance, and potential of said networks out in the real world.

Of course, the speed, availability, and reliability tests routinely conducted by the likes of RootMetrics are not always entirely representative of the real-life experience of smartphone users, but these independent reports remain without a doubt our best indicator of the amazing progress being made by the US wireless industry as a whole.

5G speeds are on the rise but the fastest carrier might surprise you

The latest comprehensive research paper put together by the aforementioned mobile analytics firm focuses on 45 cities across the US and the incredible work done by the nation's top three wireless service providers between November 2020 and March 2021 to improve 5G median download speeds.

Those numbers are up pretty much nationwide for both AT&T and T-Mobile, with Verizon delivering robust 5G download speeds of its own between January 15 and March 4 of this year that essentially had no equivalent during the August 5 - November 6, 2020 timeframe for fairly obvious reasons.

Somewhat surprisingly, AT&T leads the newest RootMetrics US 5G speed chart despite being constantly left out of all industry pundits' conversations and predictions about both current and future market leaders.

At least for the time being and at least in these 45 markets, Ma Bell's combination of extensive low-band spectrum and limited mmWave technology is proving the winning strategy. Granted, we're not talking about a crushing victory over T-Mobile and Verizon, but AT&T's 31 cities with 5G median download speeds of between 50 and 100 Mbps trump the combined tally of its two arch-rivals in the same section.

Perhaps more impressively, AT&T was able to offer the "absolute best 5G speed experience" in a grand total of 14 cities, compared to just six and three for T-Mobile and Verizon respectively. That indicator combines median with 5th percentile and 95th percentile speeds to provide a more realistic look at various usage scenarios ranging from the best to the worst case you could experience on any given day.

As far as the battle for silver is concerned, it shouldn't be that surprising to see T-Mobile edge out Verizon all in all after the former's remarkable mid-band 5G expansion efforts and the latter's controversial "nationwide" low-band rollout.

The 5G availability and reliability wars yield different winners

If you're expecting to hear that T-Mobile managed to earn yet another 5G availability title, prepare to be... proven exactly right.


But while Magenta's supremacy in this key department remains indisputable, both AT&T and Verizon deserve serious praise for their own solid improvements. Big Red, for instance, counts 19 markets with at least 40 percent 5G availability, which is nothing compared to T-Mo and AT&T's 39 and 37 tallies respectively, jumping however from... 0 just four months earlier.

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Meanwhile, there's clearly still plenty of room for improvement for T-Mobile in the speed section to match its towering service availability numbers, and the same actually goes for 5G reliability, where AT&T and Verizon are currently sharing their industry leadership status.

5G data reliability refers to each carrier's ability to both connect the user to a high-speed signal and maintain said connection for a sufficiently long time to complete a standard speed test.


When combining the two factors (getting connected and staying connected), all three mobile network operators shined, delivering "generally exceptional" 5G data reliability. But AT&T shined (slightly) brighter than Verizon, which in turn clearly eclipsed T-Mobile.

Overall, this report should definitely put a big smile on the faces of AT&T's top execs, but in the absence of a mid-band spectrum portfolio capable of rivaling T-Mobile's resources and a convincing plan to rapidly deploy its newly acquired C-band spectrum, it's only a matter of time until Ma Bell's surprising 5G supremacy will be completely annihilated by the competition.

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