Which is Fastest: Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile?

Category: Wireless

When choosing a mobile phone service, you want to know which one has a good strong signal and a fast 4G (or 5G) data connection, in the places where you live and use your cell phone. In their advertising, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile all make various claims about network coverage, reliability and speed. All of them claim to ‘best’ in some way. But is there a way to honestly compare which one is best where YOU live and work? YES! Read on for that...

OpenSignal Mobile Coverage Map

London-based OpenSignal claims to publish the only unbiased mobile service coverage maps to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions. The company also publishes reports drawn from its millions of real-world mobile monitoring stations -- the smartphones that run the OpenSignal app.

The app reports to OpenSignal the phone’s location, the network to which it’s connected, the actual data speed and latency of the connection. It does not collect data that would identify the user. This crowd-sourcing paradigm has enabled OpenSignal to collect billions of data points from over 100 million copies of its app that have been downloaded since its release in 2010.

Open Signal Coverage Maps

In January 2023, OpenSignal published their annual Mobile Network Experience report, which in T-Mobile swept nearly all the top spots. They rated T-Mobile as the winner in the Video Experience, Games Experience, Voice App Experience, Download Speed, Upload Speed, Core Consistent Quality and Excellent Consistent Quality categories. AT&T took honors in the overall Availability category. Verizon came up empty in the winner's circle.

It's worth noting, though, that in almost every category, the results were pretty close. For example, in Coverage Availability, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile scored 99.3, 99.1, and 98.0, respectively. You'll see the same tight clustering (all competitors within 10% of each other) in the Video, Games, and Voice categories.

But the two categories where T-Mobile really excelled were the ones that matter most: Download Speed and Upload Speed. According to OpenSignal measurements, T-Mobile users experience the fastest average overall download speeds in the U.S. with a score of 79.5Mbps. That's more than DOUBLE the average download speeds of AT&T (38.2Mbps) and Verizon (31.3Mbps). On the Upload side, T-Mobile scored 10.7Mbps, followed by Verizon with a score of 7.9Mbps, and AT&T at 6.3Mbps. Download speeds are important for the user's overall experience, especially when viewing web pages, streaming video and of course when downloading files and apps. Upload speeds matter most when sharing files, photos, or videos. For a smooth experience with interactive activities like voice calls, video conferencing, and gaming, you'll want good speed on both the up and down sides.

If you use (or are considering) one of the many MVNOs (third-party mobile resellers) such as Consumer Cellular, Boost Mobile, Cricket, Republic Wireless, Straight Talk, Ting or Tello, your cellular service comes from one of the Big Three (Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile). Check with your carrier to see which network your MVNO uses, then you can refer to the OpenSignal reports to make an informed decision about which to use.

If you're lucky enough to have 5G cellular service, you'll be interested in OpenSignal's update on the state of 5G rollout. All of the major mobile carriers are racing for 5G leadership. The latest 5G User Experience Report showed T-Mobile winning for the seventh year in a row, for both 5G Download and Upload Speed. And again, it's not even close. T-Mobile users clocked average 5G download speeds of 186Mbps — more than 100Mbps faster than both Verizon and AT&T.

There's a Regional Analysis Summary by U.S. state, but I don't find that data particularly useful, because most users are in urban areas, so OpenSignal’s data is skewed in that direction and under-reports data from rural areas. OpenSignal’s sample is not randomly selected, as the sample for an ideal experiment should be. But that doesn’t make OpenSignal’s coverage maps useless. If you live in an urban or suburban area, as 80% of the U. S. population does, OpenSignal maps provide a good prediction of what a given carrier’s coverage and signal quality may be. If you don’t drive into the boondocks very often, you won’t miss rural coverage. Dead zones may not be measured, but the absence of data points in a given area certainly implies the existence of a dead zone.

The coverage maps on the OpenSignal website are far too broad to be helpful. But if you download the OpenSignal mobile app, you can get signal strength, speed and latency numbers for the local area, and compare the stats for each of the carriers.

I live in a pretty rural area and was pleasantly surprised to see that OpenSignal's coverage map was quite comprehensive. I was able to confirm that AT&T has a strong 4G signal, Verizon is a close second, but T-Mobile would not be a good choice here. (How rural? We have a duck pond in the front yard. Our flock of Pekin and Layer ducks enjoy swimming during the day, and then they waddle home to their coop in the evening. The first photo below shows a recent batch of 2-day-olds, in the cardboard shipping container.)
ducks in pond
ducks in pond

Verdict: A Useful Tool

Overall, OpenSignal is a useful tool for the vast majority of users, and it is free of the perceived bias that attaches to professional tests paid for by the company that stands to benefit from the test results. The OpenSignal mobile app will help you improve your mobile signal, and recommend the best mobile operator in any area. The signal pointer will tell you which direction to go in order to find a stronger signal. By installing it, you'll be part of a collaborative effort helping others get a better signal too.

Meteor, a companion app from OpenSignal, shows your download, upload and latency numbers on both wifi and the mobile network. It also reports on how well a set of popular apps (social media, messaging, video, navigation, gaming, and music streaming) will work, given your current speeds.

If your cell signal is poor, check out my companion article No Bars, No Signal? Try a Cellular Signal Booster.

Which carrier has the best signal in your neighborhood? If you're in the market for a new mobile provider, you might want to consult the coverage maps from OpenSignal. Even better, ask your neighbors which provider they have, and how they rate the coverage. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question.

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Most recent comments on "Which is Fastest: Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile?"

Posted by:

Bob Pegram
27 Mar 2023

In my case A T & T is the fastest because, where I live, it is the only one that works. I briefly had T-Mobile and it couldn't connect to the cell tower so it was worthless. I got a refund.

Posted by:

Ken H
27 Mar 2023

I agree with Bob. The most important thing for me is coverage/availability and AT&T far outshines the rest that may or may not even be available where I live in the forest.

In my travels I also note that I have cell coverage where others have to rely on the wi-fi when they get back to their hotels or that provided in restaurants.

Starlink is my only choice for internet service provider that allows me to stream what I want, when I want with no cap. I have tried all the rest and now I have what is demonstrably by far the best.

Posted by:

27 Mar 2023

Unless you really need super fast speed (and most people really don't), coverage is what really matters. In most major cities, they are equally good. There are places where only one carrier has good coverage. Where my sister-in-law lives outside of Reno, only Verizon has good coverage, so she is with Verizon. Surprisingly, in the downtown of the little community where I live, Verizon seems to have poor coverage. I was with AT&T for years because they had the best coverage at the time. But I got angry at them for some billing practices and switched to T-Mobile which has good coverage in my area now.

Posted by:

28 Mar 2023

By the way, besides speed, latency can matter depending on what you are doing. We had some power outages due to the rain and wind in California. I had power but my Xfinity cable was out. I used my cell phone as a mobile hotspot which worked OK for email, web browsing, etc. But even though the speed was good enough, the latency was too high to watch videos.

Posted by:

29 Mar 2023

I got a new i-phone and signed up for Consumer Cellular. No signal at all - we live 8 miles from a small town. Back to Verizon; the only thing that works out here.

Posted by:

02 Apr 2023

Love the ducks. What do you do with them?

EDITOR'S NOTE: The ducks provide us with eggs and unlimited entertainment. :-)

Posted by:

07 Apr 2023

"Fastest" cell phone carrier is a pointless discussion. After you get through the 4G/5G hype, the phone company marketing BS, and the speed measuring gimmicks, your speed depends on many more local factors and they are always changing. The question should be is it fast enough for you, today? If not, just wait an hour or go somewhere else and it'll change. Bottom line is, what are you going to do about it? Change phone companies on the basis of the most recent click-bait article?

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