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 did 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.
After spending a few hours running around the Windy City on both networks its clear that 5G has arrived, but multiple flavors will be required going forward for the best experience.
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.
Keeping in mind that Verizon has had some time to roll out its network and deal with “day one” kinks, in our first head-to-head 5G showdown 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.
At a top download speed of 233Mbps I haven’t yet come close to Saw’s peak of 800Mbps, but downloads were fairly consistent in the 100 to 150Mbps range even while indoors or walking the streets. Uploads, which Sprint is also doing over 5G, came in between roughly 9 to 26Mbps.
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 for the entire eight-episode season.
But a couple of blocks over, on N. State St and Delaware Place, Sprint still had strong 5G and consistent speeds whereas 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.
Walking around downtown Chicago there were few areas where the S10 5G displayed LTE as opposed to 5G. There are still a few kinks to be worked out, however, and there were times where I could barely get webpages to load even with the phone showing 5G and full bars.
Both phones seemed to benefit from excellent weather. Whereas Verizon’s high-frequency mmWave network struggled to reliably keep a 5G signal for me in Wednesday’s 95-degree heat, neither phone seemed to struggle with Thursday’s clear skies and 74-degree temps. As it’s 5G technology is utilizing that lower spectrum, it will be interesting to see if Sprint’s midband network performs better on hotter days.
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 completed 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 download speeds at a much faster 555-718Mbps, though it still took over twice as long to download and install the game.
Downloading the first episode of the second season of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in its “best” quality at the Merchandise Mart train platform, however, was much faster on Verizon. The episode took 1 minute, 28 seconds over Sprint’s 5G network while doing the same on Verizon was roughly 18 seconds.
Opening a YouTube video was near instant for both Verizon and Sprint at this spot, with hardly any buffering when switching the quality from the default 480p on Verizon (360p on Sprint) to 1080p. Neither network struggled or slowed when fast forwarding around the clip.
Uploading four photos to Facebook took just under 18 seconds on Sprint and just under 20 seconds for Verizon. While Sprint uses 5G for uploads, Verizon still relies on 4G in Chicago.
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 coverage 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 in Chicago on July 12 before expanding nationwide on July 19.
Unlimited Premium, Sprint’s priciest version of unlimited (it comes with a subscription Amazon Prime in addition to Hulu and Tidal) is still required for 5G connectivity. It starts at $80 per month for one line.
Saw said in an interview that Sprint’s other four previously announced 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.
As with others at Sprint, Saw is hoping the merger will be approved — allowing Sprint to combine its midband spectrum together with T-Mobile’s broader low-band spectrum and higher density mmWave radio waves for a robust nationwide network — he says the company does have a 5G plan in the event it doesn’t go through.
“Obviously we would definitely like to build it together with T-Mobile so that we can have an even bigger footprint,” Saw says, adding that the company on its own lacks the low-band spectrum needed to build a 5G network that will reach rural areas.
So which network is better? It depends
In running around Chicago one thing that became clear is how a true 5G network really needs a combination of technologies, not just one over the other.
When in the right area it’s hard to top the blazing fast speeds of Verizon’s mmWave 5G. The lofty promises surrounding this so-called “race to 5G” all center around these high-speed, high capacity networks that offer true home broadband speeds while out and about.
But these networks are severely limited in range and continue to struggle in high temperatures. Perhaps the temperature problem will be solved over time as new wireless chips hit the next wave of phones later this year, and Verizon is still adding new 5G nodes to bolster outdoor coverage. But due to the nature of the technology the mmWave range issue likely isn’t going away anytime soon.
Downloading a season of a TV show in 30 seconds is incredible, but being expected to stand on a street corner to do it isn’t.
On the other side, Sprint’s network was in most cases much slower than Verizon’s and its 5G speeds on day one felt more like a really good 4G network than the next-level 5G AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile’s mmWave networks have demonstrated. This too should get better over time, but for now there is no denying that a major gap in speed exists.
Its midband network, however, meant that I did not need to hunt for 5G like it was some kind of wireless Pokémon Go. It was constantly and consistently popping up where I was, allowing me to get download speeds of 191Mbps even while in an Uber on the 90 West highway outside the city.
Thankfully for consumers, a few of the major carriers have already revealed their plans to combine multiple of flavors of 5G together over the coming months. AT&T and T-Mobile are already talking about nationwide 5G using multiple technologies in 2020.
But for now, if I had to pick between the two give me Sprint’s consistent 150Mbps connection across my city over spots of super-fast 1Gbps 5G any day.
Originally published July 11 at 10:09 a.m. PT.
Updated at 11:38 a.m PT, 12:42, 1:52 p.m. and 5:11 p.m. PT: Added results from out on Chicago’s streets.