Chicago is “the city that works,” and Chicagoans expect nothing less from their wireless carriers. Whether it’s a trip to the Field Museum, checking on the next snowstorm, or navigating through rush hour, a solid network connection is a must. To that end, we put all four of the major carriers–AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon–to the test to see which had the best wireless speeds.
Just like in New York City and San Francisco, Verizon came out on top in the City of the Big Shoulders. Though the network wasn’t the fastest everywhere we tested, Verizon was still almost twice as fast as its competitors when it came to downloading.
However, the other carriers are upping their games. Sprint’s improved Spark network isn’t just hot air, as the carrier came in second in our tests.
Testing locations were chosen based on their geographical location and popularity. We used four Samsung Galaxy S5 phones (one from each of the four big carriers) at the same time to ensure no single provider had the advantage of being used during off-peak hours. To measure the networks’ capabilities, we ran Ookla’s Speedtest Mobile app five times on each Galaxy S5 to get an average download and upload speed for every carrier at every site. If a handset couldn’t connect to Speedtest’s servers due to network communication issues, we recorded the results as 0 Mbps.
We then downloaded the original Angry Birds, a 44MB file, on the four smartphones, to measure the providers’ real-world download speeds. We capped the download time for the app at 7 minutes, since any longer would be unreasonable for such a small file. Once we determined the average download and upload speeds and app download times for the carriers at each site, we averaged their individual results to calculate their overall performance in Chicago.
|Average Download||23.6 Mbps||36 Mbps||14.2 Mbps||80.9 Mbps|
|Average Upload||10.4 Mbps||11.5 Mbps||12.4 Mbps||23.7 Mbps|
The storied home of the Chicago Cubs is celebrating its 100th birthday this year and still drawing fans despite the ball club’s legendary World Series drought. On the day we tested, the restaurants and bars surrounding the park were packed with World Cup fans watching the USA compete in an early round, and the Cubs had a game starting later in the day. Perhaps due to the location, all four of the carriers yielded their fastest Speedtest download speeds and Angry Birds download time.
Verizon led the pack with an average download speed of 80.9 Mbps, followed by Sprint’s Spark network with 36 Mbps. T-Mobile was the slowest with 14.2 Mbps.
Speedtest upload averages told a similar story, though T-Mobile came in second by clocking an average of 12.4 Mbps behind Verizon’s 23.7 Mbps.
Downloading Angry Birds was especially quick–the Verizon S5 downloaded the app in 6 seconds, while Sprint did it in 15.
|Average Download||21.6 Mbps||21.9 Mbps||29.6 Mbps||43.6 Mbps|
|Average Upload||8.5 Mbps||3.1 Mbps||13.9 Mbps||16.5 Mbps|
Heading north from Wrigley, we next went to Andersonville, which at one time had more Swedes than any city outside of Stockholm. We sat down at a coffee shop in the heart of the neighborhood at Clark Street and Berwyn Avenue. This popular neighborhood is also home to T-Mobile’s best speeds in Chicago, with an average download speed of 29.6 Mbps and an average upload of 13.9 Mbps on Speedtest. Angry Birds downloaded in just 12 seconds, just four seconds slower than Verizon’s leading time of 8 seconds.
Big Red’s XLTE network once again turned in the best throughput with a Speedtest download average of 43.6 Mbps, while AT&T and Sprint were nearly even with 21.6 Mbps and 21.9 Mbps, respectively.
The Speedtest upload averages varied greatly among the carriers. Verizon was the fastest with an average of 16.5 Mbps, while Sprint was the slowest with an average speed of 3.1 Mbps.
|Average Download||13 Mbps||7.9 Mbps||9.7 Mbps||5.6 Mbps|
|Average Upload||9.4 Mbps||4.8 Mbps||7.0 Mbps||2.9 Mbps|
The Williamsburg of Chicago packs hipsters into locally owned coffee shops and brew pubs, but doesn’t pack a lot of bandwidth– at least for Verizon. Sitting in a popular cafe across the street from the iconic Logan Square monument, AT&T’s network had the strongest showing, leading the Speedtest download average with 13 Mbps. T-Mobile was just behind with an average of 9.7 Mbps. Both were well ahead of Verizon’s last-place 5.6 Mbps average.
Upload averages followed a similar pattern, with AT&T posting the best throughput at 9.4 Mbps and Verizon posting the worst with 2.9 Mbps. Sprint beat Verizon with an average upload speed of 4.8 Mbps.
None of the networks blew us away on the Angry Birds download test at this location. T-Mobile was the fastest at 42 seconds, with AT&T taking a second longer. Sprint was the slowest, taking 1 minute, 38 seconds to download the 44MB file.
Clark & Lake CTA Station
|Average Download||2.2 Mbps||29 Mbps||7 Mbps||30.7 Mbps|
|Average Upload||0.5 Mbps||12.7 Mbps||7.7 Mbps||21.2 Mbps|
The intersection of six of Chicago’s “L” train lines is one of the busiest spots downtown, with commuters and tourists bumping elbows as they head up and down the station’s numerous stairs.
Here, the networks produced wildly different results. While Verizon and Sprint both posted excellent download speeds of 30.7 Mbps and 29 Mbps, respectively, AT&T turned in a dismal download speed of 2.2 Mbps, with T-Mobile averaging a fair speed of 7 Mbps.
On uploads, Verizon again had a strong showing with 21.2 Mbps, but T-Mobile managed just 7.7 Mbps, and AT&T barely moved the needle with a speed of 0.5 Mbps.
Verizon finished the app download test in a zippy 6 seconds and Sprint took just 5 seconds longer than that. T-Mobile finished in 57 seconds, but AT&T limped along, taking 6:30. For this test, we consider downloads over 7 minutes a fail.
|Average Download||4.3 Mbps||25 Mbps||2 Mbps||48.4 Mbps|
|Average Upload||2.5 Mbps||14 Mbps||5.1 Mbps||26.8 Mbps|
Chicago’s tourist jewel is home to Cloud Gate, aka the “Bean,” the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, and acres of beautifully manicured gardens that open up to gorgeous views of downtown Chicago.
Tourists looking to quickly upload selfies in front of the mirrored Bean will be best served by Verizon or Sprint. The average upload speed on Speedtest was 26.8 Mbps on Verizon, 14 Mbps on Sprint, and a less-than-stellar 5.1 Mbps on T-Mobile. AT&T came in dead last again downtown, with an average upload speed of 2.5 Mbps. At this location, Verizon and Sprint posted the fastest average download speeds — a blistering 48.4 Mbps average for Verizon and 25 Mbps for Sprint — while AT&T and T-Mobile crept along with an average of 4.3 Mbps and 2 Mbps, respectively.
Downloading Angry Birds took just 6 seconds on Verizon, 11 seconds on Sprint, 1 minute and 11 seconds on AT&T, but a painfully slow 3 minutes and 23 seconds on T-Mobile.
|Average Download||12.3 Mbps||10.7 Mbps||1.6 Mbps||22.3 Mbps|
|Average Upload||16 Mbps||1.6 Mbps||4 Mbps||16.1 Mbps|
The cavernous great hall waiting area in Union Station serves travelers going everywhere from the south suburbs to as far away as San Francisco. Once again, Verizon reigned supreme on the Speedtest download test, averaging 22.3 Mbps. AT&T turned in a respectable 12.3 Mbps, while T-Mobile squeaked along with a measly average download speed of just 1.6 Mbps.
The upload portion of Speedtest ended with nearly identical results for AT&T and Verizon, with the carriers averaging 16 Mbps and 16.1 Mbps, respectively. Unfortunately, the average upload speeds for Sprint and T-Mobile were annoyingly slow at 1.6 Mbps and 4 Mbps.
Despite Verizon’s solid download average, the carrier’s network took 29 seconds to download Angry Birds. By comparison, AT&T took just three seconds longer. Sprint managed to download the file in 1 minute and 9 seconds, while T-Mobile came in dead last, taking 2:13.
The Field Museum
|Average Download||10.2 Mbps||5.3 Mbps||8.8 Mbps||7.7 Mbps|
|Average Upload||8.5 Mbps||6.4 Mbps||6.5 Mbps||13.8 Mbps|
Along with the Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History makes up Chicago’s museum campus on the lakefront. Originally built to house the collections from the 1893 World’s Fair, the Field Museum of Natural History is home to the fossil of Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Sitting on the steps outside of the entrance to the iconic museum, we tested the phones as tourists streamed through the doors. In a twist from the other tourist haven of Millennium Park, AT&T and T-Mobile produced the highest download speeds on the Speedtest app test, averaging 10.2 Mbps and 8.8 Mbps.
Though Verizon managed a mere 7.7 Mbps on the download test — much slower than other locations — the carrier averaged 13.8 Mbps on the Speedtest upload test. The same was true of Sprint. The carrier posted an average upload speed of 6.4 Mbps, besting its average download speed of 5.3 Mbps.
Though none of the carriers downloaded Angry Birds lightning fast, AT&T was the quickest at 49 seconds. T-Mobile was only slightly slower with 53 seconds, and Verizon clicked in with 56 seconds. Sprint lagged way behind, taking 1:50 to complete the download.
University of Chicago
|Average Download||12.2 Mbps||3.6 Mbps||13.7 Mbps||2.5 Mbps|
|Average Upload||6 Mbps||3.9 Mbps||8.6 Mbps||1.2 Mbps|
The home of the atom bomb vexed the carriers with less than nuclear speeds. In front of the university’s bookstore, only AT&T and T-Mobile were able to achieve decent throughput, averaging 12.2 Mbps and 13.7 Mbps down, respectively. Verizon came in last with a dismal average download of 2.5 Mbps, while Sprint was only slightly better with an average of 3.6 Mbps.
On the upload portion of Speedtest, T-Mobile was the fastest with an average speed of 8.6 Mbps, while AT&T came in second with 6 Mbps. Verizon once again was dead last with an average of 1.2 Mbps.
Echoing the Speedtest results, AT&T completed the app download test in 26 seconds, while T-Mobile took a little longer, completing the task in 33 seconds. Verizon and Sprint both took well over a minute with times of 1:28 and 1:48, respectively.
|Average Download||12.4 Mbps||17.4 Mbps||10.8 Mbps||30.2 Mbps|
|Average Upload||7.7 Mbps||7.2 Mbps||8.2 Mbps||15.3 Mbps|
Having now tested throughput in three cities across the country, one fact remains: Verizon’s network is the fastest. In Chicago, the carrier averaged a download speed of 30.2 Mbps. Coming in second was Sprint, which averaged 17.4 Mbps. AT&T came in third with an average of 12.4 Mbps, while T-Mobile brought up the rear with 10.8 Mbps.
The highest average upload speeds also went to Verizon, which led the pack at 15.3 Mbps. T-Mobile came in second with an average of 8.2 Mbps, while Sprint was the slowest at 7.2 Mbps.
Lastly, the download of Angry Birds was also the quickest on Verizon with an average of 36 seconds. Sprint had a solid showing with an average of 56 seconds for second place, while AT&T took an average of 1:21 seconds to complete the task.
Both Verizon and Sprint have implemented their next generation LTE networks (XLTE and Spark, respectively) in Chicago. Clearly, these network improvements make a huge difference, especially for Sprint, which came in dead last in our New York and San Francisco 4G tests.
Remember, all of these tests represent just a moment in time, and speeds may vary based on numerous factors. But right now, Verizon is the fastest in Chicago overall.