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Big four US carriers face off over 5G: We compare their peak speeds

We tested Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile's early 5G network speeds two ways.

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Sprint's LG V50 5G phone shows the most promise for consistent coverage.

Lynn La/CNET

5G has launched on all four major US carriers -- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile -- and we got a chance to test them all, from Los Angeles to New York.  (We tested 5G in the UK and Australia, too.) After dozens of tests in cities across the US, we can firmly say that fast 5G is coming, and with it, one of the most important competitions -- and challenges -- facing the phone world today.

AT&T showed us the fastest peak download speeds of them all, but under such limited circumstances, it's almost better to think of it as a demo rather than real-world tests. While ordinary buyers likely won't get to use AT&T's 5G on phones until at least 2020 (it's for business customers only now), the fact that AT&T blasted past Verizon's already crazy speeds in Chicago, more than doubled T-Mobile's peak in Manhattan and more than tripled Sprint's highest speeds in Dallas underscores how hungry carriers are to win 5G victories early. 

The stakes are real. 5G is the most important thing to happen to phones in a decade. This is the new network technology that will eventually replace today's 4G LTE networks, promising anywhere from 2x to 10x and one day 100x faster download speeds. 

With 5G, you'll be able to download hours of video in seconds, launch crystal clear, lag-free video calls and play graphics-heavy games in real time. The carrier that can claim the fastest download speeds, widest coverage area and most consistent service earns more than just bragging rights. Carriers hope to lure customers on the strength of their 5G reputations.

We're still in the early days of our 5G tests in the US and around the globe, but comparing our results from Speedtest.net and real-world downloads already reveal an important lesson. Speed isn't everything. The consistency of those speeds and the breadth of coverage are just as important as high highs and lightning-fast downloads.

While most of us won't feel the full effect of next-generation 5G speeds until the networks start to roll out in earnest, more 5G phones have become available, and the price of ownership has dropped.

However, the reality of 5G's ability to make your download speeds exponentially faster is undeniably clear and happening now. 

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AT&T smashes Verizon's peak speeds

Test after test, AT&T's 5G network topped Verizon's fastest network speeds -- 1.8Gbps on AT&T and 1.3Gbps on Verizon. That's especially impressive knowing that AT&T decided to "cap" its 5G speeds at 2Gbps, suggesting they could go even higher.

Sprint peaked at 484 Mbps (megabits per second). That's 3.7 times slower than AT&T's highest score, but still, nothing to scoff at. For reference, 4G LTE speeds could get you 100Mbps down, and fast home internet speeds might hover in the 400Mbps range.

5G tests: Peak speeds


Peak download speed (Speedtest.net) Location 5G technology Phone Test date
AT&T 1.8 Gbps Los Angeles (Warner Bros. Studio) mmWave Galaxy S10 5G June 22, 2019
Verizon 1.3 Gbps Chicago mmWave Galaxy S10 5G May 16, 2019
SK Telecom 618 Mbps Seoul Sub-6GHz Galaxy S10 5G June 27, 2019
T-Mobile 583 Mbps New York mmWave Galaxy S10 5G June 28, 2019
Telstra 489 Mbps Sydney Sub-6GHz Oppo Reno 5G June 20, 2019
Telstra 485 Mbps Sydney Sub-6GHz LG V50 June 14, 2019
Sprint 484 Mbps Dallas Sub-6GHz LG V50 May 30, 2019
EE 460 Mbps London Sub-6GHz OnePlus 7 Pro 5G June 15, 2019

We field-tested Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T's speeds using the Speedtest.net benchmarking app in different locations. We also downloaded apps, movies and TV shows to see how fast the network and phones handled real-world actions (more below).

But here's one important difference in the tests. While Verizon (and T-Mobile) let journalists loose to test its 5G nodes built into existing light posts, again, our tests with AT&T are better thought of like a really impressive demo. (Sprint escorted us around Dallas in a car outfitted with screens to show our 5G progress.) 

AT&T let us use the Galaxy S10 5G on its live 5G Plus network (the name for its fastest network for phones) on a section of the Warner Bros. production lot -- basically, a small neighborhood that has its own town square -- with nodes built onto rooftops.

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AT&T had the advantage of tightly controlling its network in a smaller area, and it showed. Over the course of 12 speed tests, eight climbed higher than 1.4Gbps -- again, that beats our top Verizon speed. Verizon's speeds in our test consistently spanned 400Mbps to over 1Gbps, and we broke through the 1Gbps barrier four times in a 4-hour testing period around downtown Chicago. 4G speeds were also faster where we tested 5G.

Sprint covered a comparatively larger area throughout Dallas, with speeds that rarely crested 400Mbps (that's still much faster than your current phone).

This is an imperfect comparison in a lot of ways. Verizon and Sprint use different spectrum (radio frequencies). Verizon and this AT&T test use millimeter wave (mmWave), which produces extremely fast speeds to a targeted area. Sprint, however, uses midband frequencies, which cover a comparatively larger area but are a bit slower, hence the 400Mbps peaks. AT&T will also rely on this midband spectrum for the majority of its future network and will give more densely populated areas and businesses a faster shot of 5G Plus.

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AT&T's 5G speeds blew us away on a Galaxy S10 5G phone.

Logan Moy/CNET

5G network footprint: Sprint wins today. Tomorrow is wide open

Although AT&T technically has more cities lit up in 5G than Sprint and certainly Verizon, the Galaxy S10 5G phone isn't actually available to the general public yet (it's only for business users). That makes Sprint the winner in turning on a larger 5G network that more people can use today.

However, Verizon is the largest US network by population coverage, with AT&T right behind it, while Sprint and T-Mobile are currently in third and fourth. Still, Sprint's strong start with 5G makes it an attractive bargaining chip in the proposed merger between Sprint and T-Mobile -- and T-Mobile 5G held its own in our New York tests.

If the DOJ approves the merger, the newly bolstered T-Mobile will be in a stronger position to take on Verizon and AT&T. (Here's how Dish figures into the megamerger, too.)

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Sprint stats (5G network)

  • Network type: 2.5GHz "sub-6" wireless spectrum
  • 5G cities today: Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Kansas City
  • 5G phones: LG V50, Galaxy S10 5G
  • More 5G cities announced: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix, and Washington
  • Total area: 2,180 square miles; 11.5 million people

Verizon stats (Ultra Wideband)

  • Network type: Millimeter wave (mmWave)
  • 5G cities today: Chicago, Minneapolis
  • 5G phones: Galaxy S10 5G, Moto Z3 with Moto Mod
  • More 5G cities announced: 30 markets by the end of 2019

AT&T stats (5G Plus)

  • Network type: AT&T 5G Plus will work with mmWave technology, but the carrier will also use "sub-6" spectrum
  • 5G cities: Parts of 19 cities, including LA, Austin, and Dallas (started with hotspots)
  • 5G phone: Galaxy S10 5G (Business only, consumer by 2020)
  • More 5G cities announced: AT&T has plans for at least 30 cities

T-Mobile stats

  • Network type: mmWave technology
  • 5G cities: Six cities, including Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York
  • 5G phone: Galaxy S10 5G
  • More 5G cities announced: T-Mobile is focused on the Sprint merger and expansion into low-band spectrum

See for yourself5G coverage anywhere in the world

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Verizon's 5G network will grow beyond Chicago and Minneapolis.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Real-world tests are more impressive than you'd think

Peak speeds are one thing, but what you'll really care about is how quickly your shows and movies can download. We downloaded some of the same apps and shows in Chicago, Dallas, and LA to try to compare.

It's not apples to apples, of course, because of testing constraints that have us in different cities, on different networks using different phones at different times (and in one case, a different season of the show -- oops).

5G real-world download speeds


Verizon (Galaxy S10 5G) AT&T (Galaxy S10 5G) Sprint (LG V50) T-Mobile (Galaxy S10 5G)
PUBG Mobile (1.86GB) 2.5 minutes 27 seconds (download only), 1 minute, 23 seconds (download and install) PUBG was 1.96 GB 3 minutes, 31 seconds 2 minutes, 12 seconds (file was 2.04GB)
Wine Country movie (143 minutes) 8.2 seconds N/A 3 minutes, 45 seconds (Sprint later said there were issues at this location) 40 seconds
Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 1 (8 episodes, 1.82GB) N/A N/A 4 minutes 6 minutes and 34 seconds
Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 2 HD (10 episodes) ~5 minutes N/A N/A N/A
Blue Planet II, Episode 1 N/A 2.73 seconds 49 seconds 16 seconds

*Sprint later said there were issues at this location

The clearest takeaway here is that 5G will be faster than its 4G counterpart in ways you can already see.

What does weather have to do with it?

Heat may throw a wrench into 5G speeds. When we tested T-Mobile's network on the Galaxy S10 in New York, we noticed that 5G would hand off to 4G as the mercury climbed. At around 88 degrees in full sunlight, falling back to a 4G network would keep internal phone temperatures in check -- in addition to any individual devices' internal cooling strategies.

The high-frequency radio waves used by mmWave technology could theoretically cause the phone to overheat, especially when paired with resource-heavy processing that spins up the CPU to its maximum levels, such as downloading large files or streaming in ultra-high quality (a future promise for 5G).

This is not the first link between 5G and the weather, though meteorologists' concern that 5G could wreak havoc on atmospheric readings is quite a different consequence and one that the scientific community is actively discussing. On the ground, we'll need to keep an eye out for weather patterns affecting 5G data.

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Sprint wins one more time

Sprint doesn't have the fastest speeds by a mile, but where the carrier really pulled ahead was in citywide coverage. Our test in Dallas had us on a bus and car driving around the city while seeing download speeds pass between 5G and 4G. We were able to test on the go, and there was a larger area of the city and Dallas outskirts outfitted with coverage.

Meanwhile, in Chicago (we didn't get a chance to test in Minneapolis), 5G areas acted more like hotspots. They work best when you're within a line of sight and 100 to 300 feet away. Coverage zones are smaller and the signal is more finicky, easily obstructed by trees, cars, raindrops -- you name it. Same story with AT&T, which was completely contained in a movie lot.

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Sprint is the readiest for more people.

Lynn La/CNET

The mmWave spectrum that Verizon and AT&T use also can't penetrate indoors or through glass, so you can't get the benefit if you're driving in a car or inside your workplace... yet. Remember, 5G is still in painfully early days.

That larger coverage area showed in our Dallas tests, but again, this was one city with its very particular geography, and Sprint took its time to construct its network.

What does it all mean?

AT&T shows us the most potential for blazing downloads at the brink of our imagination. Verizon has the upper hand when it comes to consistently fast 5G speeds when you can actually latch onto the network. And Sprint showed us how slower-but-broader 5G coverage can still benefit you with faster-than-4G downloads across the board. T-Mobile proved it has the foundation in place, but its proposed merger with Sprint could change the game.

We're not done testing yet, not by a long shot. We have dozens if not hundreds of tests to come as we're able to test the same phone on the same network in the same city -- and around the world. Keep in mind that we expect a wide gulf between these peak speeds and the results we'll see when people start pinging the 5G networks in droves. That will be the real test of network speed, congestion and convenience.

After all the talk, it's invigorating to see 5G networks come to life. But they still have such a long way to go.

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Lynn La, Patrick Holland and Eli Blumenthal contributed to this story.

Originally published May 31.
Updates, June 1, June 2, June 3, June 4: Adds more details; June 25: Adds analysis in light of AT&T test results. Update, June 26: Adds T-Mobile network news. Update, June 27
Update, June 30: Added T-Mobile test results.
Update, July 1.