It’s one thing for wireless carriers like Verizon and Sprint to show off 5G speeds in this or that city. It’s another to test the same phone on two different networks in the same town to get a taste of how 5G competition is heating up. That’s exactly what I’m doing today in Chicago — testing peak and real-world 5G speeds on the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G on both Verizon and Sprint.
Sprint, awaiting government approval on its pending acquisition by T-Mobile, on Thursday turned on its fifth promised 5G city, Chicago. That happens to be one of the two launch markets for larger rival Verizon’s 5G service, which in our early tests yielded impressive speeds, if limited coverage.
Sprint’s expansion into the Windy City, as the second carrier to offer 5G there, turns Chicago into one of the early battlegrounds for 5G. It also marks an early test of the different approaches taken by the two carriers. For its 5G network, Sprint has focused on using the slower but wider-ranging midband spectrum (often referred to as sub-6GHz). Verizon on the other hand (and AT&T and T-Mobile) have prioritized using super fast but severely limited millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum.
Where Verizon gets download speeds close to or exceeding 1Gbps on its mmWave 5G network, Sprint’s midband network is a fair bit slower. John Saw, Sprint’s chief technology officer, said the average download speed the company is seeing is 328Mbps, with a peak of about 800Mbps. As more people get online, the average speed should be around 150Mbps, nearly five times faster than the roughly 30Mbps average download speed of 4G LTE.
So here’s what I got out on the streets of Chicago:
In a check on the corner of N. Ernst Ct. and E. Walton St., with both Galaxy S10 5G phones pinging the same server, Verizon’s mmWave was much faster — it hit a download speed of 713Mbps, compared with Sprint’s 123Mbps — but Sprint’s 5G network coverage along the way here was much better.
A download test of Stranger Things season 3 highlighted the raw power of mmWave 5G. Verizon downloaded the season in roughly 52 seconds, while Sprint needed roughly 8 minutes 40 seconds. In a redo (Sprint had seemed to hang on Episode 2 in the first try), both networks showed a slight improvement: Verizon to 31 seconds, Sprint to 7 minutes, 32 seconds.
But a couple blocks over, on N. State St and Delaware Place, Sprint still had strong 5G and consistent speeds, while Verizon dropped back to 4G LTE. Also, Sprint was consistent inside a Starbucks at that corner, with speeds inside coming in between 136Mbps and 149Mbps on download and between 8.6Mbps and 10Mbps on upload.
While speed tests are good snapshots of a location’s raw capabilities, they don’t tell the whole story.
By Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap on E. Superior St., downloading and installing PUBG, a 2.04GB game, from Google Play took roughly 7 minutes, 22 seconds, over Verizon’s 5G network. Sprint’s Galaxy S10 5G did the same task in the same location in around 2 minutes, 45 seconds.
Speed tests at this location had Sprint downloading data at 116-148Mbps (with some flashes of 250Mbps). Verizon speed tests clocked downloads at a much faster 555-718Mbps, though it still took over twice as long to download and install.
Sprint’s 5G pricing, phones and availability
Sprint plans to reach roughly 700,000 people immediately across the Chicago area with 5G, a much larger area than the select city blocks Verizon is focusing on.
All three of Sprint’s first 5G devices — the Galaxy S10 5G, the LG V50 ThinQ 5G and the HTC 5G Hub hotspot — will be available nationwide on July 19.
Unlimited Premium, Sprint’s priciest version of unlimited (it comes with Amazon Prime, Hulu and Tidal) is required for 5G connectivity. It starts at $80 per month for one line.
Saw said in an interview that four more markets — New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Phoenix — will get 5G in the next “couple of weeks.” Sprint’s 5G network is already operating in parts of Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Kansas City, along with Chicago now.
While Verizon has had some time to roll out its network and deal with “day one” kinks, I’m getting the chance to take both networks through their paces in our first head-to-head 5G showdown. Stay tuned to this page throughout the day to see how the two stack up.
Originally published July 11 at 10:09 a.m. PT.
Updated at 11:38 a.m PT and 12:42 p.m. PT: Added speed test results from out on Chicago’s streets.