Despite ads that suggest, “Yes, you can have it all,” wireless service really doesn’t work that way. You can go for speed, or you can go for a low price, but you can’t have both. A new series of speed tests from respected tech website Tom’s Guide reiterates this fact.
The tests also confirm that Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile are much faster, and more expensive, than Sprint. When it comes to discount, prepaid carriers, download and upload speeds are so slow in some cases that customers may have problems watching videos or using other data-intensive applications.
The Tom’s Guide results show that Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T are very close in speeds in the six major cities where the tests were performed: Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. Verizon’s average download speed was 24.0 Mbps; T-Mobile, 22.7 Mbps; and AT&T, 20.8 Mbps.
A difference of just 1 or 2 Mbps is negligible in most cases, and a lot of factors affect speeds at different times of the day and in different locations within the same city, so these minor variations probably aren’t enough to make someone choose one carrier over another. However, Sprint averaged just 11.2 Mbps downstream, a significant difference, and that number is in line with testing from other outfits, including RootMetrics.
Prepaid carriers fared particularly poorly in the Tom’s Guide evaluations. Cricket, which is owned by AT&T and uses its network, registered a very slow average 4.5 Mbps downstream. Straight Talk scored higher at 7.1 Mbps, and MetroPCS, owned by T-Mobile, came in at 8.1 Mbps. (T-Mobile says that Tom’s Guide significantly understated MetroPCS speeds, but the website stands by its conclusion.)
Why are download speeds on a carrier that’s owned by T-Mobile and that uses the same network significantly slower? T-Mobile answered that question in an exchange with Tom’s Guide:
“To differentiate them, we give T-Mobile customer data precedence over non-T-Mobile-branded services (including MetroPCS) when our network is presented with competing demands. In those rare times and locations where the network is heavily loaded, some customers may experience slower data speeds.”
The same is true of AT&T, which is why Cricket is so much slower than AT&T’s mainstream network service. Both Boost and Virgin use Sprint’s network, and their average download speeds (10.3 Mbps and 10.8 Mbps respectively) are nearly as fast as Sprint’s standard service (11.2 Mbps).
The lesson here is fairly clear: There’s little difference in speed nationally among Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. However, you should always test speeds in your home, office and in the places you’ll use the network most before switching carriers. As for prepaid carriers, they make sense if keeping costs down is a priority, but you’ll notice the sluggish data performance.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.