Which Mobile Carrier Has the Strongest (and fastest) Signal?

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, and an update on the ‘dog and duck’ situation...

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 2021, OpenSignal published their annual Mobile Network Experience report, which rated Verizon as the winner in the 4G Availability, 4G Coverage, and Video Experience categories. Verizon and T-Mobile jointly won the Games Experience award, which measures multiplayer mobile gaming experience.

T-Mobile was also tops in the Upload Speed category, with speeds 29% faster than Verizon, and 74% faster than AT&T. Upload speeds matter when sharing files, photos, or videos. AT&T took honors for the network with the best average Download Speeds, clocking in at 33.2 Mbps. Verizon and T-Mobile effectively tied for the silver medal with 28.9 and 28.8 Mbps, respectively.

The report also gives an 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 had the highest 5G Availability and the fastest 5G download and upload speeds. Verizon scored the best in 5G Video Experience. But for all the hype, 5G isn't being used all that much. Even though every major handset maker now includes 5G on their flagship models, most users still have older smartphone models, connecting to older 3G and 4G networks. If you have a 5G-capable phone, your network speeds depend in large part on where you live.

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 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.

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? Well, the photos below show our baby ducks one year ago, along with some more recent updates. That’s our dog Bonzai, whose arrival was announced here back in 2008.)

Bonzai and baby ducks
Bonzai and duck
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 Mobile Carrier Has the Strongest (and fastest) Signal?"

Posted by:

Mac Eld
30 Apr 2021

Aren't there any maps or info that show coverage by Zip Code? I don't care what the whole state aggregate is. I want to know what the numbers are for where I live.

Posted by:

30 Apr 2021

Pretty much unimpressed by Open Signal's findings. Even at a statewide level, the results are meaningless. As far as I could search, there were no maps to be found on their website. As such, what's the point. Sorry, Bob, but you struck out on this one!

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