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Verizon vs. AT&T vs. Sprint: Guess who's winning 5G now – CNET

Verizon vs. AT&T vs. Sprint: Guess who's winning 5G now – CNET

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


Lynn La/CNET

In the pitched battle over 5G in the US, AT&T has stormed into the fray with the fastest peak download speeds we’ve seen anywhere — 1.8 gigabytes of data per second. That’s insanely fast. While ordinary buyers can’t actually use AT&T’s 5G on phones until 2020 (it’s for business customers only for now), the fact that AT&T’s network blasted past Verizon’s already crazy speeds in Chicago and more than tripled Sprint’s highest speeds in Dallas underscores how hungry carriers are to win early 5G victories.

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.

It’s still early days with our 5G tests in the US and around the globe, but comparing our results from Speedtest.net and real-world downloads already reveals 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.

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.

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.

And now, here’s how Verizon, AT&T and Sprint’s 5G tests compare.


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AT&T 5G network has some of the fastest speeds we’ve…

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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 Phone Test date
Verizon 1.3Gbps Chicago Galaxy S10 5G May 16, 2019
AT&T 1.8Gbps Los Angeles Galaxy S10 5G June 22, 2019
Sprint 484Mbps Dallas LG V50 May 30, 2019

We field-tested Verizon, Sprint 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 let journalists loose in Chicago, to test its 5G nodes built into existing light posts, our tests with AT&T are better thought of as a really (and we mean really) impressive demo.

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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See Galaxy S10 5G’s jaw-dropping real-world speeds

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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 that 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

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 is currently fourth. Still, Sprint’s strong start with 5G makes it an attractive bargaining chip in the proposed merger between Sprint and T-Mobile.

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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Putting Sprint’s 5G to the test on the LG V50

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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)

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

See for yourself5G coverage anywhere in the world

s10-5g-verizon-2s10-5g-verizon-2

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 once case, a different season of the show — oops).

5G real-world download speeds

Galaxy S10 5G (Verizon) Galaxy S10 5G (AT&T) LG V50 (Sprint) Galaxy S10 Plus on 4G (Verizon) LG G8 on 4G (Sprint)
PUBG Mobile (1.86GB) 2.5 minutes 1 minute, 23 seconds 3 minutes, 31 seconds ~3 minutes 73MB (3% of the file) after 3.5 minutes
Wine Country movie (143 minutes) 8.2 seconds N/A 3 minutes, 45 seconds (Sprint later said there were issues at this location) Little progress after 2 minutes No progress
Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 1 (8 episodes) N/A N/A 4 minutes N/A First episode didn’t download after 4 minutes
Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 2 (10 episodes) ~5 minutes N/A N/A 1 episode in 4 minutes N/A

*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.

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 in 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.

lg-v50-sprint-5g-test-lynnlg-v50-sprint-5g-test-lynn

Sprint is the most ready 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.

That said, 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 and Patrick Holland 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.

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