Biggest city doesn’t always mean fastest speeds – RootMetrics

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New York's speeds ticked up slightly in the second half of 2020, and the market jumped from 12th to first in RootMetrics speed rankings. (Getty Images)

New rankings from RootMetrics show that of the top 125 U.S. markets (by population), two of the relatively smallest cities were among the speediest. Lansing, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina, landed in the top 10 with faster aggregate median downloads than major markets like Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and more.

Lansing, Michigan, with a population rank of 117 (about 313,530 people), scored the sixth spot for median download speed across carriers at 43.7 Mbps. Fayetteville, N.C., meanwhile, is 121st population-wise (310,280) and rounded out the tenth speed spot at 42.5 Mbps.

That compares to metropolitans of the three largest markets – New York (18.35 million), Los Angeles (12.15 million) and Chicago (8.6 million) – which RootMetrics ranked first, 62 and 32, respectively, for speeds.

Median download speeds were aggregated from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon during the second half of 2020, across all network technologies including 4G LTE and 5G where available.

Just three of the most populated cities made it into the 10 fastest, including New York, with the fastest speeds of 46.3 Mbps. Philadelphia ranked third (fifth population-wise of 5.44 million) with speeds of 44.6 Mbps, and Washington, D.C., took the ninth speed spot (No. 8 for population at 4.58 million) at 42.6 Mbps.

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The second fastest city was Seattle, which has roughly 3 million people and clocked aggregate median downloads of 45.2 Mbps. Another smaller market, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was seventh for speed (right behind Lansing with 43.6 Mbps). Check here for a graph of all 125 market speed rankings. 

While characteristics of cities vary widely in the U.S., generally the top-20 fastest metros usually fall in the upper 50% population-wise, according to RootMetrics. Things like congestion and typography affect speeds, but the size of markets also is a factor for ease of deployments.

Rishikesh Bhandari, RF engineer at RootMetrics, shared some perspective on why speeds in a smaller market like Lansing might see faster speeds than major metros. For example, the second most populous city of Los Angeles (12.15 million people) ranked 62 for speed at 31.5 Mbps. Houston, which has around 4.94 million people, was low on the speed list at 92 with median downloads of 27.5 Mbps.  

“Technology rollouts and the optimization of those technologies (such as 5G or higher-order carrier aggregation, among others) can often take longer in bigger cities precisely because of size,” Bhandari told Fierce via email. “In a big metro like LA, for example, there are far more people for the carriers to serve—and over much larger geographic distances—compared to a much smaller city like Lansing. In short, the carriers must ensure smooth technology deployments in any city, and that can take time, especially in bigger cities, with millions of people and thousands of square miles to cover.”

RootMetrics table 2H2020 top 10 cities speeds
Top 10 markets by population and speed rank for 2H2020. (RootMetrics) 

While relatively smaller population-wise, Lansing is not a stranger to good speed rankings and was the 15th fastest in the first half of 2020 by RootMetrics rankings. It attributed a jump in the second part of last year to now both Verizon and T-Mobile having deployed 5G in the market.

Fayetteville also was the city that clocked T-Mobile’s single fastest 5G median download speed in the second half of 2020 at 88 Mbps. That was the second fastest 5G speed by any carrier, according to RootMetrics, outdone only by AT&T with a speed of 94.8 Mbps in Kansas City, Missouri.

Verizon, meanwhile, had the fastest individual carrier median download in NYC at 72 Mbps and had the fastest median download in 8 of the 10 largest markets, with AT&T taking the remaining two.

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

While median download speeds improved for some cities in the second half of last year, interestingly five out of the 10 largest actually saw small downticks compared to the first half of 2020.

That includes Miami (29.2 Mbps 2H2020 vs 31.8 Mbps 1H2020), Philadelphia (44.6 Mbps, down from 50.1 Mbps), Houston (27.5 Mbps vs 31.2 Mbps), Washington, D.C. (42.6 Mbps, down from 46.2 Mbps), and Boston (38.1 Mbps from 40.5 Mbps).

“While speeds among the nation’s 10 biggest cities were somewhat mixed, there was good news to be found across the board, with at least one carrier providing strong speeds in each of these heavily populated markets,” wrote RootMetrics in its report