Verizon Wins San Francisco 4G Showdown
In the city that's synonymous with technology, everyone from Sergey Brin to Mark Zuckerberg needs strong wireless broadband to keep up with the latest news and deals. But from the bay to the breakers, San Francisco is a big place, with a lot of hills that potentially block cellphone reception.
So, as we did with our New York 4G testing, Laptop Mag took four Samsung Galaxy S4 devices to the streets of San Francisco to see which carrier offered the best 4G LTE speeds. Verizon came out on top again, but T-Mobile was a very strong second. Sprint, however, was barely in the game.
How We Tested
Testing locations were chosen based on their geographical location and popularity. We evaluated each Galaxy S4 phone from each of the four big carriers at the same time to ensure no single provider had the advantage of being used during off-peak hours. To measure the networks' capabilities, we ran Ookla's Speedtest Mobile app five times on each Galaxy S4 to get an average download and upload speed for every carrier at every site. If a handset couldn't connect to Speedtest's servers due to network communication issues, we recorded the results as 0 Mbps.
We then downloaded "Angry Birds," a 44MB file, on the four smartphones, to measure the providers' real-world download speeds. We capped the download time for the app at 5 minutes, since any longer would be unreasonable for such a small file. Once we determined the average download and upload speeds and app download times for the carriers at each site, we averaged their individual results to calculate their overall performance in San Francisco.
|Average Download||6.7 Mbps||.89 Mbps||14.4 Mbps||26 Mbps|
|Average Upload||10.8 Mbps||0.7 Mbps||15.3 Mbps||15.5 Mbps|
|App Download||0:30||> 5:00||0:24||0:33|
Our first stop of the day was Union Square in the heart of San Francisco. Here, amid the rental bikes and artwork, Verizon performed the best on Speedtest.net, with an average download speed of 26 Mbps and an average upload speed of 15.5 Mbps. T-Mobile came in second, at 14.4 Mbps down and 15.3 Mbps up. On our real-world test, however, T-Mobile proved the fastest, downloading "Angry Birds" in just 24 seconds, comfortably beating out AT&T (30 seconds) and Verizon (33 seconds). Sprint delivered 3G-like throughput, not even cracking 1 Mbps for downloads or uploads.
|Average Download||5.4 Mbps||.43 Mbps||31.2 Mbps||20.5 Mbps|
|Average Upload||4.2 Mbps||.87 Mbps||16.2 Mbps||14.1 Mbps|
Outside, at the base of the most iconic skyscraper in San Francisco, T-Mobile's network proved the fastest, with an average of 31.2 Mbps down and 16.2 Mbps up on Speedtest.net. Here, Verizon came in second, with 20.5 Mbps down and 14.1 Mbps up. Our "Angry Birds" download echoed this result, with T-Mobile taking 15 seconds, compared to Verizon's 19.6 seconds. Sprint took more than 4 minutes to download the same file, which made us feel like an Angry Bird.
|Average Download||12.7 Mbps||.87 Mbps||7.2 Mbps||39.8 Mbps|
|Average Upload||19.4 Mbps||.76 Mbps||3.5 Mbps||3.5 Mbps|
When a carrier is sponsoring a ballpark, you better hope its wireless throughput is better than the competition. Sitting in Willie Mays Plaza, just outside the front gate of the Giants' ballpark, AT&T's upload speeds proved fastest (19.6 Mbps) by a wide margin — Verizon and T-Mobile both only averaged 3.5 Mbps. However, Verizon's download speed of 39.8 Mbps was like a Barry Bonds homer into McCovey Cove. AT&T's average of 12.7 Mbps felt like a weak grounder to short.
The Verizon Galaxy S4 downloaded "Angry Birds" in just 8.4 seconds — nearly four times as fast as AT&T (32.05 seconds).
|Average Download||6.4 Mbps||.22 Mbps||34.2 Mbps||3.7 Mbps|
|Average Upload||2.4 Mbps||.33 Mbps||16.2 Mbps||2.2 Mbps|
Despite being one of the most popular tourist destinations in San Francisco, wireless throughput at Fisherman's Wharf wasn't all that great. T-Mobile's network was fastest, averaging 34.2 down and 16.2 up on Speedtest.net, and downloading "Angry Birds" in 13.58 seconds. AT&T was second, averaging 6.4 Mbps down and 2.4 Mbps up, and taking 18.6 seconds to download "Angry Birds."
|Average Download||1.0 Mbps||0.6 Mbps||8.2 Mbps||1.7 Mbps|
|Average Upload||1.0 Mbps||0.02 Mbps||0.8 Mbps||1.4 Mbps|
|App Download||>5:00||[LEFT BLANK]||2:27||>5:00|
Turn on, tune in and drop out of 4G coverage at the intersection of counterculture. Throughput from all four carriers was horrendous here. While T-Mobile's download speed of 8.2 Mbps was good, its upload speed of 0.8 Mbps was weak. Verizon (1.7 Mbps down, 1.4 Mbps up) and AT&T (1 Mbps down and up) were just as poor. In this location, T-Mobile was the only carrier to download "Angry Birds" in less than 5 minutes, taking 2:27. Sprint still managed to bring up the rear here on both of our tests.
|Average Download||1.8 Mbps||0.08 Mbps||1.2 Mbps||3.0 Mbps|
|Average Upload||2.5 Mbps||0.4 Mbps||1.2 Mbps||0.9 Mbps|
We went from the figuratively highest place to the literally highest place in San Francisco, but found throughput here to be the worst in the city. Among the charter buses filled with selfie-taking tourists, Verizon averaged 3 Mbps down, and was the only carrier to download "Angry Birds" in less than 5 minutes, taking 1:11. AT&T also offered decent throughput, averaging 1.8 Mbps down and 2.5 Mbps up.
|Average Download||4.8 Mbps||0.72 Mbps||7.6 Mbps||65.7 Mbps|
|Average Upload||1.6 Mbps||0.86 Mbps||0.5 Mbps||18.5 Mbps|
Out where the city meets the Pacific Ocean, Verizon's AWS technology put the carrier well beyond the competition. On Speedtest.net, Big Red averaged an astounding 65.7 Mbps down and 18.5 Mbps up. The next-fastest carrier, T-Mobile, averaged just 7.6 Mbps down, and AT&T hit 4.8 Mbps down.
Our "Angry Birds" download test wasn't even close, with Verizon taking just 8.85 seconds. AT&T was more than a minute faster, at 1:17.
Golden Gate Bridge Park
|Average Download||3.8 Mbps||0.49 Mbps||11.9 Mbps||32.4 Mbps|
|Average Upload||3.9 Mbps||0.55 Mbps||13.8 Mbps||3.4 Mbps|
|App Download||1:50||> 5:00||0:19||0:13|
Overlooking the on-ramp to the Golden Gate Bridge, Verizon once again held its lead over the other carriers, averaging 32.4 Mbps downloads. However, its uploads here were just 3.9 Mbps. In this spot, T-Mobile proved the best overall, averaging 11.9 Mbps down and 13.8 Mbps up. T-Mobile downloaded "Angry Birds" in 18.6 seconds, just 5 seconds slower than Verizon's leading time of 13.1 seconds.
San Francisco Airport (Terminal G)
|Average Download||1.3 Mbps||6.1 Mbps||6.0 Mbps||4.3 Mbps|
|Average Upload||1.9 Mbps||0.9 Mbps||10.4 Mbps||9.8 Mbps|
On Sunday afternoon, while waiting to board our plane back home, we pulled out all four Galaxy S4 phones and performed one final test. Amazingly, Sprint had the fastest download speed of 6.1 Mbps — the one place we tested where we actually got LTE speeds from the carrier. Still, it took a lengthy 5:02 to download "Angry Birds" in this location. T-Mobile proved best overall, with downloads averaging 6 Mbps and uploads averaging 10.4 Mbps. The carrier downloaded "Angry Birds" in a leading time of 1:07, beating out Verizon by 29 seconds.
|Average Download||4.88 Mbps||1.1 Mbps||13.5 Mbps||21.9 Mbps|
|Average Upload||5.3 Mbps||0.6 Mbps||8.7 Mbps||7.7 Mbps|
Once again, Verizon's blazing AWS technology put its download speeds head and shoulders above the other carriers. Its average download speed of 21.9 Mbps was well above the next-fastest carrier, T-Mobile, which had a 13.5 Mbps download average. However, T-Mobile's overall upload average of 8.66 Mbps was enough to edge out Verizon's 7.7 Mbps.
Just like in New York, Sprint came in dead last; the airport was the one place where we actually saw LTE speeds. Even there, it wasn't all that impressive. Sprint is still deploying its Spark network, which the company says will be capable of delivering speeds of up to 60 Mbps. However, it's currently available in only 18 markets.
It's worth noting that our testing represents a moment in time, and other carriers could up their game soon. Also, Verizon's great speed advantage applies only to smartphones that support its AWS technology. Right now, that's about 30 percent of the device lineup, which includes the Samsung Galaxy S4, the iPhone 5s and a handful of other devices. (Most new Verizon smartphones will be AWS-compatible.) But if you're on Verizon, you'll be able to enjoy the fastest 4G around.