The iPhone 5 features 4G LTE, but not all 4G LTE networks are equal. Speed, reliability and what you can do on the AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon 4G LTE networks vary wildly. AT&T is my top pick for people who live and work in San Francisco, partially because of its solid upload and download speeds.
As part of my duties here at Gotta Be Mobile, I have way more mobile phones than anyone really needs. My primary phone is an AT&T iPhone 5. I usually care one or two spare phones with me. My current backup phones with active service include a pair of iPhone 5s (Verizon & T-Mobile), a HTC One (AT&T), a Samsung Galaxy S4 (AT&T) and a Nexus 4 (T-Mobile). AT&T’s service is far from perfect, but overall it’s the best for me and the one I’d pick if I could only have one service.
Wireless coverage and speed varies from house to house and block to block, especially in a city like San Francisco that has lots of hills and old buildings. The high density of smartphone users doesn’t do much to help the situation either.
Above is a video that demonstrates what kind of 4G LTE speeds my iPhone 5s were getting near the Bay Bridge. AT&T is the most consistent performer when it comes to data speeds around San Francisco. When 4G LTE is missing in action, AT&T’s speedy HSPA+ (4G) kicks in and it’s still fast enough for most tasks.
Here is a summary of the 4G LTE SpeedTests:
AT&T 4G LTE:
- Download 13.30 Mbps, Upload 10.51 Mbps
- Download 9.84 Mbps, Upload 10.94 Mbps
- Download 14.01 Mbps, Upload 10.66 Mbps
T-Mobile 4G LTE:
- 14.17 Mbps Download, 6.30 Mbps Upload
- 7.13 Mbps Download, 7.60 Mbps Upload
- 13.86 Mbps Download, 8.00 Mbps
Verizon 4G LTE:
- 2.25 Mbps Download, 0.03 Mbps Upload
- 1.77 Mbps Download, 0.08 Mbps Upload
- 2.68 Mbps Download, 0.09 Mbps Upload
As I mentioned in the first video, Verizon used to be the king of 4G LTE in San Francisco. I still see solid speeds in parts of San Francisco and use my Verizon iPhone 5 as a wireless hotspot since I have an unlimited data plan from Verizon. But as more people in the area bought Verizon 4G LTE devices over the past two years I’ve watched Verizon’s 4G LTE speed and reliability degrade. Above is a video of what Verizon 4G LTE speeds used to be like back in the good old days. Unlike AT&T, Verizon doesn’t have a fast backup network when 4G LTE isn’t available, instead diverting users to its slow 3G network.
Unfortunately, no wireless network is anywhere near perfect. When I say AT&T is my favorite network IN San Francisco, I mean IN San Francisco. When I go visit relatives in nearby Pacifica my AT&T iPhone 5 usually displays a “no service” rather than signal bars, while Verizon delivers solid voice and data connections.
T-Mobile is the newest carrier to light up a 4G LTE network in San Francisco. While T-Mobile’s plans are very attractive, the network is inconsistent. At times it’s as fast or faster than AT&T and Verizon. At other times I can’t even make a call or browse the web.
Sprint is the only major carrier that I don’t currently subscribe to. That network invested a ton of money and time on a different 4G technology called WiMax, which it’s in the process of abandoning. Sprint only sells 4G LTE devices these days, but it’s playing catchup to the other carriers in some areas. One of those areas is San Francisco, where Sprint 4G LTE is sparse. The prospect of unlimited data might sound tempting, but I recommend San Francisco residents avoid buying Sprint 4G LTE devices until the city is actually covered by Sprint 4G LTE.
Another key reason why AT&T is my favorite network in San Francisco is because it can transmit both voice and data simultaneously. That means I can do things like look up movie showtimes using the Fandango app while on the phone with my wife. It means my AT&T iPhone 5 can fetch new emails while I’m discussing a business proposal on the same phone. The T-Mobile iPhone 5 can do the same thing, but the Sprint and Verizon versions cannot.
Speed is just one piece of the mobile puzzle. Remember to consider voice reliability, data limits and rate plan costs before buying an iPhone 5 on any network.