The Opinion of Truth
Which cellphone carrier should I go with?

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Which cellphone carrier should I go with?

This is perhaps a question most don’t think about, until faced with the prospect of obtaining cell service themselves. If you are like me at first, it was easy to get lost in what was required, what certain features meant, what came with the phone, conditions of a 2 year contract, and above all else…vague pricing.

The main point of this article is educate. I have decided to spend a few hours researching and putting my first-hand experience together with dealing with cellphone companies, along with my knowledge of technology, to help those that don’t even know where to begin. I like to think of myself as being unbiased and objective in this article, I mean ultimately it is your decision which company you decide to go with and doesn’t affect me one way or another, I have no vested interest in any of the 4 major carriers.

First off, this article is geared toward Family Plan (2 lines minimum) smartphone users. If all you want is a barebones basic phone to make calls, or text only. Then while this article may still educate you on the pros and cons of the four major carriers, it’s primary focus will be on the smartphone user.

What is a smartphone?

Short Answer: It is a phone and mini-computer merged into one device. The five most popular smartphone types are Blackberries, Palm Pre, Windows Mobile, iPhone, and Android devices.

Long Answer: A smartphone is a high-end phone that is capable of everything basic and multimedia phones are capable of doing (making calls, texting, web browsing), but with the ability to do so much more than linear tasks. You have full web browsing (you aren’t limited to mobile browsers, non-HTML browsers, WAP, mobile-only websites) so you can view 90% of the same websites that you see on your computer, on your phone (now days, certain Android phones can even render Flash).

Smartphones are the devices you hear people or websites claiming they have “apps” for. Which are basically mini applications on your phone, which can vary widely from being a Tetris game, to being a an app that translates spoken English to spoken Spanish.

Smartphones are powered by specific software often referred to as a mobile OS (operating system). The five major ones being Blackberry, Palm, Windows Mobile (Microsoft), iOS 4.0 (iPhone/Apple), and Android. How each OS works is beyond the scope of this article as it gets pretty techy, however it does matter. An example would be the way the iPhone 3GS was incapable of multitasking apps, such as if you were listening to Pandora (a music app), you couldn’t check your email, get directions, etc. because the OS was designed to run one app at a time, while other operating systems such as Windows Mobile/Android do support multiple processes running at the same time if you so choose.

Who are the four major carriers?

The four major carriers are (in this order):

Verizon (acquired most of Alltel, and was forced by regulation to allow AT&T to purchase some)

AT&T (acquired some of Alltel and formerly known as Cingular Wireless)

Sprint (merged with Nextel)

T-Mobile

What makes the four carriers so different from one another?

The wireless technology used, and spectrum the cellular frequencies are being broadcast in, are both are factors that distinguish them apart from one another.

Verizon and Sprint both operating using CDMA technology. [1xRT/EVDO]

AT&T and T-Mobile both operating using GSM technology. [EDGE/3G (HSDPA/HSDPA+)]

All that “3G network” stuff you hear on television ads, are basically arbitrary values/speeds based on what is considered 3rd generation technology. Both technologies have their upsides and downsides (IE: GSM technology uses SIM cards, CDMA technology, for the most part, does not). Neither of the two technologies are compatible with one another, which forces you to buy another phone if you were switch from say AT&T to Verizon.

Spectrum is another reason you normally cannot easily switch between carriers. Here is a general guide to the spectrum the 4 carriers broadcast in.

Verizon- 850/1900MHz

AT&T- 850/1900MHz

Sprint- 1900MHz

T-Mobile- 900MHz/1700MHz/2100MHz

 

The difference in frequencies matter as much as AM/FM radio frequencies matter. The lower the frequency, the better the signal penetrates buildings and further it reaches. The higher frequencies, however are far less susceptible to interference and has a “bigger pipe” which allows clearer transmissions, faster data connections, etc. Most 3G signals are transmitted over the higher frequencies. For instance, T-Mobile broadcast their 3G over both the 1700MHz and 2100MHz frequencies.

The type of technology and frequency used by a carrier, are the main reasons you can just use your old phone with another carrier, it is also why Sprint phones can roam off of Verizon, but Sprint phones cannot roam on AT&T/T-Mobile towers.

Keep in mind that just because your carrier broadcast on certain frequencies, that doesn’t mean the phone you bought from them supports that frequency, or the technology being broadcast on it. For example, you may connect to T-Mobile’s 2100MHz and only connect via EDGE.

 

*Spectrum used can vary even state to state in the U.S., not to mention when I say 850Mhz consideration must be taken for things like 851Mhz, 855Mhz, etc.

 

Can I use my old carrier’s phone, on a different carrier using the same technology?

Short Answer: Save yourself the headache and don’t bother. If you’re a short answer kinda guy/gal, this route isn’t for you, lol.

Long Answer: Yes…kinda, but expect no support, as most companies want you buy their phones and enter into a 2-year contract.

The first thing you have to know is if the cell technologies are the same. Let us use the most popular example people may be familiar with. AT&T has exclusive rights to the iPhone and you are tired of AT&T’s network and want to go with T-Mobile (as they are both GSM carriers). The iPhone is capable of picking up the 850/1900/2100MHz frequencies. T-Mobile broadcast in 900/1700/2100MHz frequencies. You can swap out the AT&T SIM card and put in T-Mobile’s SIM card and the iPhone will work off of their 2100MHz frequency.

However, everything has a price. Depending solely on the 2100MHz frequency means that you will not have as good signal penetration as the 850MHz as well as the signal will not reach as far. Although, if you live in an area with excellent coverage then you will be alright, as it wouldn’t be that much different that Sprint who depends solely on the 1900MHz. There is one major problem though (well depending on how much a geek you are). You will not be able to access T-Mobile’s 3G network as AT&T and T-Mobile access their 3G networks in different ways. You will only have access to T-Mobile’s EDGE/GPRS networks.

What are the different 3G technologies and why do they matter?

Remember 3G is basically a speed classification, the technology must be capable of a certain speed to be considered 3G. Yes, 3G is better than 2G by far.

3G CDMA networks (Sprint & Verizon)

CDMA networks actually split their network, you may have noticed on your phone something like 1xRTT and EVDO each with separate bars (although these days some phones try to simplify it into one bar, but there are two).

1xRTT is the very slow 2G network (GSM equivalent GPRS), barely faster than dial-up. Both Verizon and Sprint use this to carry the voice stream, it is usually broadcast on a lower frequency to help with coverage. Regular text messages are sent over this stream as well. In the event of now EVDO connection, this stream will attempt to access the internet.

EVDO (Rev. A: 3.1Mbps): This is the 3G network, which both use for that data so that you can browse the web, send MMS, etc.

Disadvantages: Your voice does not broadcast over the EVDO (3G) network, which is why voice quality can sound hollow at times as the signal is slow and subject to interference. This technology also is unable to both browse the web and talk on the phone at the same time. CDMA technology also has the slowest 3G network, Rev. A (3.1Mbps) nearly twice as slow as AT&T’s GSM technology and 7x as slow as T-Mobile’s HSDPA+ network.

Advantages: It divides up network congestion between voice and data. If one network goes out, the other should remain unaffected. There are times when you will have zero bars EVDO and 3 bars 1xRTT.

GSM 3G networks (AT&T and T-Mobile)

GSM technology has 4 speeds:

GPRS (2G): Very slow connection, comparable to Verizon’s 1xRTT, except it handles both voice and data services equally.

EDGE (2.5G): A compromise between 2G and 3G with potential speeds up to (480kb). Handles both voice and data services equally.

HSDPA (3G): This technology boast speeds of up to 7.2Mbps (twice that of the CDMA carriers). This technology allows you to browse the web, internet apps, download files, while talking on the phone at the same time.

HSDPA+(3.5G): This technology is the most advanced on T-Mobile with currently supporting 21Mbps with potential speeds via upgrade reaching 42Mbps. This technology also allows you to browse the web, interent apps, download files, while talking on the at the same time.

 

*Keep in mind that neither GSM and EVDO will be able reach their top advertised speeds in real life practice, however you will still find GSM to be twice as fast in areas with good coverage.

 

What is 4G and does Sprint really have it?

4G is fourth generation technology that has met the standard to theoretically output of 100Mbits in a 20MHz channel, however this is far from current speeds.

Sprint has adopted WiMax as their mobile internet to be classified as 4G, which have speeds ranging from 11Mbps to 16Mbps. This beats all 3G technology, but not the HSDPA+ technology T-Mobile has been rolling out. At the moment T-Mobile’s 3.5G technology is quicker and has more areas coverage than Sprint’s 4G areas. However, Sprint has better overall coverage than T-Mobile does, especially thanks to the ability to roam off Verizon’s towers. However, keep in mind that even with Sprint’s 4G you cannot talk and user the internet/data service at the same time.

Both Verizon and AT&T are investing in the 4G technology known as LTE, and because of Verizon winning the being first in the spectrum auction, they can more easily implement LTE and will be the first one deployed with it. LTE is more GSM-like than CDMA-like so we will slowly see a transition away from old CDMA. (LTE will have SIM cards). Verizon is estimated to have their LTE network up by the end of 2010 and to have devices for sale by the summer of 2011.

T-Mobile has no current plans for 4G and is betting on HSDPA+ (4G-like speeds) to be their savior as unlike WiMax and LTE, all currently enabled HSDPA 3G phones will benefit from the HSDPA+ tower upgrade without having to purchase another device.

What is better WiMax or LTE for 4G?

That is a bit technical and beyond the scope of this article involving the understanding of time-division duplexing (WiMax) and frequency-division duplexing (LTE).

Personally, I have read up on the two and I prefer frequency-division duplexing by far (LTE), but that is me.

Alright, so which carrier should I go with?

Well, because there are so many factors to consider I will narrow it down to two major factors. Coverage and Price.

Domestic Coverage (United States):

Verizon: Has the best coverage overall, especially 3G coverage. While their 3G speeds are twice as slow and sometimes 7x slower than GSM counterparts, it does beat having no coverage or GPRS/EDGE internet.

AT&T: Has pretty much exactly the same coverage as Verizon, however they have a much smaller 3G footprint than Verizon. AT&T has a much faster 3G network than Verizon and Sprint, and a larger 3G network by far compared to T-Mobile, however chances are when you enter into an area that only has GPRS/EDGE, Verizon and Sprint will have Rev.0 to Rev.A EVDO networks in that area, which although slow, beats GPRS/EDGE anyday.

Sprint: The reason Sprint is third and not second is because it broadcast primarily in the 1900MHz frequency. This makes it bad to penetrate thick buildings and can lead to no service in the country. However, Sprint does have the ability to roam off of Verizon’s towers and they foot the bill. The bad thing though is if you roam too much they reserve the right to cancel your contract/service.

T-Mobile: Without a doubt, T-Mobile has the worst coverage out of the 4 carriers. They have the smallest 3G footprint and when it isn’t 3G it is often that very subpar GPRS network. T-Mobile has worked out agreements with many rural carriers as well as AT&T (but only in SOME areas), which almost guarantees that you will have at least GPRS coverage. T-Mobile has the fastest 3G network, but that doesn’t amount to anything if 90% of the time you aren’t in the covered area or even near one. T-Mobile has started increasing coverage drastically and has most major cities covered very well.

International Coverage:

CDMA technology isn’t anywhere as prominent as GSM in other countries. As a result the list above is almost backwards.

T-Mobile: T-Mobile phones are the only phones that support the popular 900MHz along with 1700MHz and 2100MHz. If you find yourself traveling overseas, you will be surprised to learn that T-Mobile phones are by far the best choice, as their parent company actually lies overseas.

AT&T: AT&T phones are the runner up choice as being GSM they have partners in other parts of the world than can at least run on one of their frequencies.

Verizon: I wouldn’t recommend Verizon phones at all, if you are hardcore Verizon love, check out Vodaphone, but even then..

Sprint: You really are screwed.

*The CDMA carriers do have plans and even some GSM-type phones for overseas, but it really isn’t worth it. Take a T-Mobile phone overseas and use a local SIM card.

 

Prices:

Ah, the most important part to those who live in areas with good coverage, or who just don’t like hidden fees.

Short Answer:

Sprint is by far the cheapest and offers the best value for going under contract with them. (You get 1500 Minutes/Free Mobile-Mobile/Mobile TV). T-Mobile, however is the cheapest if you just want service, but do not want to enter into a contract. T-Mobile is the only carrier to offer no-contract prices. Think of it like this, the premiums you pay for the other 3 carriers are higher because they don’t want to give you an incentive for not entering into a contract. If the premium is the same per month for both contract/no-contract you may as well enter into a contract and purchase a subsidized phone. However, T-Mobile gives you options.

Long Answer:

Below is the Family smartphone plan for all 4 carriers (this means two lines of service). I looked for the fewest minutes, unlimited texts, unlimited/highest amount of data. (July 25,2010)

 

Verizon Smartphone Family Plan

700 Minutes: $70.00

Unlimited Texting: $30.00 (includes all lines)

Unlimited Data: $30.00 (per line, not included)

Total: $160.00

 

AT&T Smartphone Family Plan

550 Minutes (rollover) $60.00

Unlimited Texting $30.00 (includes all lines)

DataPro plan (2 gig limit) $25.00 (per line, not included)

Total: $140.00 

 

 

Sprint Smartphone Family Plan

1,500 minutes: $70.00*

Unlimited Texting: $30.00* (includes all lines)

Unlimited Data: $15.00* (per line, not included)

Total: $130.00

 

T-Mobile Smartphone Family Plan:

                                                                           Contract                                         No Contract

750 Minutes                                                               $60                                                $50

Unlimited Text                                                            $20*                                              $20* (includes all lines)

Unlimited Data                                                            $30*                                             $20 (per line, not included)

Total:                                                                        $140.00                                         $110.00

 

 

The catch, fees, and downsides to the carriers, mixed with my opinion:

 

AT&T: They have exclusive rights to the iPhone (although the recent rumor is T-Mobile will get it…but you know rumors). While dataplans didn’t use to be required, now all smartphones require a dataplan. You can’t even use the Wi-Fi on your phone, without an AT&T’s SIM card showing you are a subscriber (that is dirty). AT&T has recently abolished their unlimited 3G data plan (previously $30) and now offer two different options, the first is the extremely small 200MB amount for ($15) or the much more reasonable 2GB ($25) and if you go over there is a fee for each one. This especially bad if you watch a lot of videos, listen to Pandora, etc. Now most people will be okay with the 2GB one, however I currently use about 7GB a month and my girlfriend uses 29GB (lol, I know) a month. If we weren’t grandfathered in with the unlimited plan, we would be paying over $1,000 in fees alone.

I do not recommend AT&T if you plan on doing a lot of downloading. AT&T also cuts out features on phones, most notably the Android OS they have removed support for 3rd party apps and tethering, features that the phone comes with, but they want control over your phone. They will however give you back the ability to tether for an option $20 extra a month per phone, BUT it drains from the same 200MB/2GB data pool your phone uses. A huge rip off. Tiered data is a problem here, because some phones have the ability to video chat over a 3G network (not the iPhone at the time of this posting, FaceTime is only via Wi-Fi and only for other iPhones) which means if you video chat a lot, you will eat through your limited data ration quickly.

Also if you live in New York, where the population is so dense per tower, then you will become the victim of dropped calls. In the most populated area the average is a dropped call within a 10 minute span. The reason for this is because of AT&T’s congested network due to the popularity of their exclusive iPhone agreement with Apple. AT&T has been working to fix this problem, with the most prominent being you can purchase a Microcell ($149.99) and then pay a subscription fee that will enable you to use your home broadband connection for cellular service (doesn’t seem right though..having to pay AT&T to do them the favor of off loading you onto your personal broadband connection that you also pay for). It is worth noting that in most areas, AT&T’s service is fine and they are the only carrier to offer rollover minutes (these minutes do eventually expire though).

Verizon: The most expensive of the 4 carriers, but has the best coverage and will have the first LTE network. At the moment they have worked out some deal with Skype and are the only ones to offer the Skype app (VoIP) which can save you a lot of money if you make international calls from the US. Verizon currently advertises unlimited data, but the fine print restricts you to 5GB if they choose. Verizon has stated in a stockholder meeting that just like AT&T they will also be moving to tiered data prices to increase their revenue. In other words, data usage will become like “minutes” on voice. You will have to be diligent about how much data you use. Even if you don’t go over, it is annoying having to keep it in mind and periodically check your usage, to make sure you aren’t faced with a nasty fee at the end of the month. Rationed data is also a problem as it negates the purpose of VoIP.

Sprint: A very reasonable choice in my opinion. For $130 a month for two smartphones you get 1500 minutes (which are landline minutes since mobile-to-mobile is free to any carrier) and you get Sprint TV (a $10 value per phone, compared to Verizon) along with unlimited data (which they also reserve the right to throttle at 5GB if they choose). However unlike other carriers, they do offer the 4G network, but it is an extra $10 a month PER phone and the 4G is very limited at the moment, Sprint has stated that the extra $10 also gives you true unlimited 3G internet. Sprint’s CEO has said they have no current plans to introduced tiered data at this point in time.

T-Mobile: If you live in a good coverage area and don’t travel a lot in the United States, then their no-contract plan is unbeatable. Having the fastest 3G speeds out of all the carriers and offering it at a significant discount (compare Verizon’s $160 plan to T-Mobile’s $110 plan) that could save you $600a year compared to Verizon. T-Mobile does offer unlimited 3G (which also reserves the right to throttle you if you go over). T-Mobile is also the only carrier that if you use a USB Modem to connect to the internet, if you go over MB allotted to your account, they are the only carrier to throttle you instead of charging you for ever MB you go over.

Whatever you decide is entirely your choice, I just hope that you are better prepared to make an informed decision. I have been with 3 of the 4 major carriers (Sprint being the only one, I have not been with, but have spoken with many Sprint reps.) Contrary to popular belief, the in-store reps are not very tech savvy on average (trust me..I met one out of like twenty) their main interest is to sale you a phone and accessories (they make the most commission off of accessories) if they can. Some reps like to sound tech savvy as they merely repeat what they have heard, I have even corrected a few reps who swore they were right..one AT&T rep told me how they have a larger 3G footprint than Verizon across the united states, another AT&T rep told me that Verizon only uses 2G technology, A Verizon rep told me they have faster 3G speeds than AT&T, T-Mobile reps were friendly, but had no idea what they were talking about so I kept getting transferred to tech departments as they attached the wrong data-plan to my Nexus One originally (you have to specifically have the Android data-plan so that all the ports are opened up, mine mistakenly had the blackberry).

When purchasing my AT&T plan, even though I had two AT&T flavor Nexus Ones from Google, the sales lady tried to make me sign a 2-year contract without even getting a phone or discount, I had to explain to her that AT&T doesn’t make you enter in contracts if you already own your phones. AT&T also once randomly charged me $9.00 for insurance, (when I didn’t even get my phone from them, for them to offer me insurance..not to mention their insurance wouldn’t replace my phone Nexus One anyway) and when I called in about it, the rep said they are unable to reimburse me the money, but has amended my account not to charge me again. Three calls/reps later to customer service, I eventually got reimbursed.

Even if you aren’t tech savvy, you better pay attention to the bill and be prepared to fight them on it if you are wrong. I have had both Verizon and AT&T charge me for things by mistake, and in both cases is took more than 3 times to sort it out. However, I literally saved over $300 arguing with Verizon over bad charges, it is your money, don’t give it away. I’ve seen so many people just shrug it off. I could start explaining how much money cellphone companies are making in profit alone (did you realize it cost less than a fraction of a penny to send a text message..yet they charge you 20 cents a message? That is a huge turnover (just look at their financial statements).. It isn’t wrong for a company to make money as I do believe in capitalism, but don’t lose sleep over arguing with companies more concerned about their bottom line, as I can tell you that most of the fees charged by cell companies like AT&T cost the company almost nothing (that is not an exaggeration) to begin with. 

/The End

 

*Bonus: What plan do you use, why? (warning mild bragging tone)

I am currently with AT&T and use the $119.00 Family plan for 550 minutes (rollover) which includes unlimited data. The plan is cheap, because it doesn’t include text. However my girlfriend and I both use AT&T flavor Unlocked Nexus Ones (sporting a 1GHz snapdragon processor), which are not supported by AT&T, yet can use everyone of their frequencies (including 3G HSDPA). The Nexus One is the only phone Google has personally overseen and often dubbed the Google Phone, as a result it is the only Android phone at this time that receives updates straight from Google. Most phones have their official updates intercepted by carriers, who cut features out, insert bloatware, or create custome UI’s to be ontop of the updated OS which take huge amounts of time before being released from them to specific devices. An example is at the time of this writing, I have had my Android 2.2 Froyo officially from Google for about a month, however some will not see this update or it’s features for 6 months, to a year, or ever. The Nexus One comes with Google Voice and allows texting on the data-side of the network, we use it all the time. The Android 2.2 software also supports both wireless and USB tethering for free (a feature AT&T cuts out and then offers back to the consumer for $20 per line, yet still drains from the same data pool). The Android OS also is the largest OS that supports video calling over 3G with the Fring app with any carrier on any phone that uses the supported protocol. (Skype was among them, but recently blocked Fring, in order to captialize on deals with being a Verizon only app for awhile).

However, with the introduction of tiered data plans, eventually I will not be with AT&T as any alterations to my plan will force me to choose the datapro plan (2GB) which simply isn’t enough for me or especially my girlfriend, as stated above she uses about 29GB and that is without tethering. If Sprint offers a good 3G phone, (something with at least a 1GHz processor) I’d probably go with that, as I don’t want to pay an extra $20 a month for a 4G phone when I don’t live in anywhere near a 4G area. However, if I moved to an area with good T-Mobile coverage (like an HSPDA+ area), I would definitely switch back to T-Mobile as I was paying a $110.00 a month for two smartphones which included unlimited data and unlimited texts, which is a good deal if you get coverage.

I personally prefer GSM carriers over CDMA carriers because the voice quality is so much better because the data transmission speeds are much quicker and you can even talk over 3G unlike CDMA carriers (which is why they have that hollow voice sound), being able to browse the web on 3G is a feature I have used a few times (especially on speaker phone, while on hold), yet it isn’t a feature I need. If I were to enter into a contract and lived in a 4G area, I would go with Sprint as a phone with 4G capbilities would be one of the few two-year investments that would be worth it. With Verizon’s LTE network due for release by end of this year, and with handsets to be available by summer of 2011, it seems it would be best to not enter into a contract if you can help it at this point in time.