It’s one thing for wireless carriers like Verizon and Sprint to show off speeds in this or that city. It’s another to test the same phone on two different networks in the same town to get a taste of how 5G competition is heating up. That’s exactly what I’m doing today in Chicago — testing peak and real-world 5G speeds on the on both Verizon and Sprint.
Sprint, awaiting government approval on its, on Thursday turned on its fifth promised 5G city, Chicago. That happens to be one of the two launch markets for larger rival Verizon’s 5G service, which in our early tests , if limited coverage.
Sprint’s expansion into the Windy City, as the second carrier to offer 5G there, turns Chicago into one of the early battlegrounds for 5G. It also marks an early test of the different approaches taken by the two carriers. For its 5G network, Sprint has focused on using the slower but wider-ranging midband spectrum (often referred to as sub-6GHz). Verizon on the other hand (andand ) have prioritized using super fast but severely limited millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum.
Where Verizon gets download speeds close to or exceeding 1Gbps on its mmWave 5G network, Sprint’s midband network is a fair bit slower. John Saw, Sprint’s chief technology officer, said the average download speed the company is seeing is 328Mbps, with a peak of about 800Mbps. As more people get online, the average speed should be around 150Mbps, nearly five times faster than the roughly 30Mbps average download speed of 4G LTE.
So here’s what I got out on the streets of Chicago:
In a check on the corner of N. Ernst Ct. and E. Walton St., with both Galaxy S10 5G phones pinging the same server, Verizon’s mmWave was much faster — it hit a download speed of 713Mbps, compared with Sprint’s 123Mbps — but Sprint’s 5G network coverage along the way here was much better.
At a top download speed of 233Mbps I haven’t yet come close to Saw’s peak of 800Mbps, but downloads were fairly consistent in the 100 to 150Mbps range even while indoors or walking the streets. Uploads, which Sprint is also doing over 5G, came in between roughly 9 to 26Mbps.
A download test of Stranger Things season 3 highlighted the raw power of mmWave 5G. Verizon downloaded the season in roughly 52 seconds, while Sprint needed roughly 8 minutes 40 seconds. In a redo (Sprint had seemed to hang on Episode 2 in the first try), both networks showed a slight improvement: Verizon to 31 seconds, Sprint to 7 minutes, 32 seconds for the entire eight-episode season.
But a couple of blocks over, on N. State St and Delaware Place, Sprint still had strong 5G and consistent speeds whereas Verizon dropped back to 4G LTE. Also, Sprint was consistent inside a Starbucks at that corner, with speeds inside coming in between 136Mbps and 149Mbps on download and between 8.6Mbps and 10Mbps on upload.
Walking around downtown Chicago there were few areas where the S10 5G displayed LTE as opposed to 5G. There are still a few kinks to be worked out, however, and there were times where I could barely get webpages to load even with the phone showing 5G and full bars.
Both phones seemed to benefit from excellent weather. Whereas Verizon’s high-frequency mmWave network struggled to reliably keep a 5G signal for me in Wednesday’s 95-degree heat, neither phone seemed to struggle with Thursday’s clear skies and 74-degree temps. As it’s 5G technology is utilizing that lower spectrum, it will be interesting to see if Sprint’s midband network performs better on hotter days.
While speed tests are good snapshots of a location’s raw capabilities, they don’t tell the whole story.
By Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap on E. Superior St., downloading and installing PUBG — a 2.04GB game — from Google Play took roughly 7 minutes, 22 seconds, over Verizon’s 5G network. Sprint’s Galaxy S10 5G completed the same task in the same location in around 2 minutes, 45 seconds.
Speed tests at this location had Sprint downloading data at 116-148Mbps (with some flashes of 250Mbps). Verizon speed tests clocked download speeds at a much faster 555-718Mbps, though it still took over twice as long to download and install the game.
Sprint’s 5G pricing, phones and availability
Sprint plans to reach roughly 700,000 people immediately across the Chicago area with 5G, a much larger coverage area than the select city blocks Verizon is focusing on.
All three of Sprint’s first 5G devices — the Galaxy S10 5G, theand the HTC 5G Hub hotspot — will be available in Chicago on July 12 before expanding nationwide on July 19.
Unlimited Premium, Sprint’s priciest version of unlimited (it comes with a subscriptionin addition to Hulu and Tidal) is still required for 5G connectivity. It starts at $80 per month for one line.
Saw said in an interview that Sprint’s other four previously announced markets — New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Phoenix — will get 5G in the next “couple of weeks.” Sprint’s 5G network is already operating in parts of Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Kansas City, along with Chicago now.
As with others at Sprint, Saw is hoping the merger will be approved — allowing Sprint to combine its midband spectrum together with T-Mobile’s broader low-band spectrum and higher density mmWave radio waves for a robust nationwide network — he says the company does have a 5G plan in the event it doesn’t go through.
“Obviously we would definitely like to build it together with T-Mobile so that we can have an even bigger footprint,” Saw says, adding that the company on its own lacks the low-band spectrum needed to build a 5G network that will reach rural areas.
While Verizon has had some time to roll out its network and deal with “day one” kinks, I’m getting the chance to take both networks through their paces in our first head-to-head 5G showdown. Stay tuned to this page throughout the day to see how the two stack up.
Originally published July 11 at 10:09 a.m. PT.
Updated at 11:38 a.m PT, 12:42, 1:52 p.m. PT: Added results from out on Chicago’s streets.