AT&T tops RootMetrics 5G speed rankings, T-Mobile wins availability

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AT&T ranked first for 5G speed and tied with Verizon for reliability, while T-Mobile maintained its claim for greatest 5G availability in RootMetrics latest report. (Getty Images)

Network testing from RootMetrics show all three of the leading U.S. wireless carriers improved 5G performance since the second half of 2020, but early on the 5G network crown is still up for grabs.

RootMetrics new report (PDF) compared 5G performance across 45 cities from January 15 through March 4, 2021. 

AT&T ranked first for 5G speed and tied with Verizon for reliability, while T-Mobile maintained its claim for greatest 5G availability.

As deployments march forward, there’s still a lot of room left for greater 5G coverage and speeds across carriers.

T-Mobile had at least 55% 5G availability in 29 markets, up from 13 in the last report. AT&T wasn’t far behind, at 20 markets hitting that benchmark, compared to its previous three. Verizon marked the biggest improvement (in 2020 it registered 5G in only one of the 45 markets) but still counted just three markets with at least 55% 5G availability.

RELATED: T-Mobile’s standalone 5G benefits rural areas most, but speeds lag– Opensignal

Before Verizon rolled out its nationwide 5G service using dynamic spectrum sharing last year, its mmWave deployments delivered speedy results with the tradeoff of barely any coverage. Earlier testing by Ookla showed the carrier’s 5G speed took a hit as the carrier started leaning on lower band spectrum, and Verizon found itself at the bottom of the pack in RootMetrics latest speed rankings.

However, T-Mobile, which has been touting its rollout of high-capacity 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum, was close by. It clocked median download speeds between 50-100 Mbps in 11 markets – just one more than Verizon. That’s still a big improvement over the second half of 2020, when T-Mobile clocked 50-100 Mbps in just two of the 45 markets.

RootMetrics attributed T-Mobile’s boosted speed performance to much greater use of mid-band for 5G in the first part of 2021 (22.4% of the time versus 0.94% in the 2H2020).

T-Mobile was the only carrier to hit above the 100 Mbps threshold, with a median download speed of 103 Mbps in Syracuse, New York.

RELATED: AT&T scores fastest 5G network, Verizon’s availability drags down speed

AT&T didn’t hit that benchmark but took the lead with median download speeds of at least 50 Mbps in 31 markets, and none that registered below 25 Mbps. AT&T’s nationwide 5G service uses lower band spectrum including 850 MHz, with limited mmWave deployments largely focused on venues and high density locations.

Still, it’s worth nothing that 5G promises to deliver speeds ten-times that of 4G, and as the results show, none of the carriers were shown to consistently blow past speeds already seen with LTE.

RootMetrics also took measurements for best- and worst-case speeds, meaning the lowest fifth percentile and top 95th percentile. T-Mobile pulled ahead for the smaller subset, with 13 cities registering at least 250 Mbps at the high-end intervals, but AT&T pegged as fastest overall.

“AT&T led the competition, delivering a combination of the fastest worst-case, median, and best-case 5G download speeds together in 14 cities,” wrote RootMetrics.  “T-Mobile registered the fastest speeds across all three metrics in six markets, while Verizon did so in three cities.”

RELATED: T-Mobile likely to hold onto ‘fast 5G’ lead – analysts

AT&T taking the lead for speed is interesting as some analysts such as Wall Street firm New Street Research feel the race for 5G network superiority is largely a competition between T-Mobile (with its arsenal of 2.5 GHz) and Verizon (which is gearing up to deploy C-band spectrum it spent more than $45 bilion to acquire).  AT&T also spent big for C-band in the 3.7 GHz range, but doesn’t expect to reach 100 million pops with mid-band coverage until early 2023, which is at least a year later than both Verizon and T-Mobile.

5G network rankings often vary across testing companies, which employ different methods for collecting and analyzing data.  For example, in new Speedtest results from Ookla, T-Mobile reigned in Q1 for 5G speeds and time spent on 5G. According to Ookla, T-Mobile clocked median download speed of 82.53 Mbps, which compares to AT&T (76.6 Mbps) and Verizon (67.24 Mbps).

RELATED: AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon each win ‘fastest’ 5G awards: Huh?

Ookla’s results are crowd-sourced measurements from its app on user devices, while RootMetrics performs drive-testing with specific devices (in this case the Samsung Galaxy S20+ 5G and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G).

As RootMetrics noted, as 5G deployments continue and mature, carriers have different opportunities to change their spot in the rankings.

“The current leaderboard could shift quickly if T-Mobile can continue to show improved speeds along with its already broad availability, or if Verizon can pair its rapid 5G expansion with faster speeds going forward,” wrote RootMetrics.