Which of the Big Four wireless carriers is right for you? Download

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When it comes down to it our main goal at Android Authority is to help readers to be as informed about mobile technology as possible Weve brought you news of wireless spectrum purchases and details regarding new service plans offered by the biggest American providers among other noteworthy topics But theres been a key piece of the puzzle missing thus far which is to distill and consolidate all this information into one concise resource And that brings me to the important question that guided all the information youll find below Which of the Big Four wireless carriers is right for you
Obviously this is quite the loaded question and I dont presume to believe I can provide a definitive answer for everyone Instead what Ive done is broken down the process of answering this rather large question into a series of smaller questions that through the process of elimination should help you to identify the wireless provider that would best suit your needs So without further ado lets jump right into it
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As Im not one to shy away from a challenge lets start things off by diving into whats surely the most important feature of a wireless provider coverage When it comes to picking a wireless provider its definitely coverage that makes this a tricky decision particularly because coverage is a much less straightforward metric than you might think
The best way to gauge a providers coverage would be to trek across every square inch of the US making test phone calls to see if you can hear me now But as much as that may be the most reliable test of coverage its not the most realistic method Since we cant do that we have to rely on other metrics and that brings up an entirely different problem which is that most providers use vague language when it comes to defining and delineating their coverage areas
When a company claims to have the best coverage theyre not usually referring to how much of the US they cover Instead coverage typically refers to how many Americans fall within a providers service area

When a company claims to have the best coverage theyre not usually referring to how much of the US they cover if that were the case Sprint would come in dead last and have virtually no appeal to prospective subscribers Instead coverage typically refers to how many Americans fall within a providers service area Its such syntactical technicalities as this that allow providers to make claims of 99 percent US coverage while enormous holes particularly in Middle America riddle their coverage maps or to claim that the competitions coverage is within one percent of their own in terms of area or quality
For what its worth sources have shown that Verizon covers the largest number of Americans followed closely by ATT If we take these coverage maps at face value T-Mobile is a few paces behind ATT with Sprint trailing distantly in last place You can take a look at and compare these maps on the RootMetrics website But raw coverage area alone doesnt necessarily determine which provider is best for you because among other reasons there are inevitably going to be places one provider covers that another one doesnt Unless you live in an urban or suburban area thats covered by all four carriers the percentage of Americans covered by a provider isnt all that telling and its for this very reason that studies have started focusing more on quality rather than quantity of network Dont worry well get there
As you determine which provider has the best coverage for your needs there are two important questions you should ask yourself First is there coverage in the area or region in which you spend the majority of your time In particular your hometown and any surrounding areas in which you frequently venture The second question has a few different parts Do you travel Are your trips confined to one specific area or do you occasionally head to parts unknown The reason these questions are important is because a we obviously want coverage at our homes particularly as landlines become increasingly antiquated and b were likely want service in any places to which we may be traveling At least when at these two junctures we should have peace of mind
If you want to be safe you could choose the provider that offers the most impressive coverage map that includes your home and any areas to which you travel or plan to travel Of course most providers offer surcharge-free domestic roaming so lack of coverage on a providers map doesnt necessarily indicate a dead zone In fact so-called dead zones are what you want to be most wary of making sure that youll encounter as few of them as possible in your day-to-day life
Although there are some exceptions any of the Big Four would suit someone who needs coverage in one of the larger cities in the US Similarly those who find themselves almost exclusively in metropolitan areas would likely be happy with any of them Its when you start to getting to smaller towns and communities that coverage becomes a bigger question and its difficult to predict which of the Four would be best without historical data on which to base the prediction
Again since there are going to be places where some providers offer coverage and others dont choosing a wireless provider based only on coverage should be done on a case-by-case basis however its likely that coverage isnt the only thing you need from a wireless provider It may not even be the most important thing which brings us to the second stop on our journey
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With coverage out of the way we can get into some qualifiers that are a bit more cut-and-dry like data performance Theres a good chance that you use your mobile device for internet access far more often than you use it as an actual phone In fact the point at which we began using mobile phones for data more than for actual phone calls was documented in 2010 so we can safely assume that if anything thats even moreso the case today For this reason data performance is surely among users most important features in a wireless service provider
In August 2017 OpenSignal released its latest State of Mobile Networks USA report which analyzed crowdsourced data consisting of 5 million data points from some 172000 mobile devices on the Verizon Sprint T-Mobile and ATT networks A major focus of OpenSignals study was data performance and the results found that the prevalence of unlimited data is taking its toll on some network speeds
According to OpenSignals study T-Mobile and Verizon have the best LTE availability with roughly 90 percent of subscribers able to access LTE data speeds at any given time These two are followed by ATT and Sprint at 83 percent and 82 percent respectively Meanwhile Verizon and T-Mobile were found to offer the best download speeds but its now T-Mobile that takes the lead with 175 Mbps typical compared with Verizons 149 Mbps The reason for Verizons slower performance of late is assumed to be the result of more users enjoying unlimited data thereby taking up network capacity
ATT however isnt too terribly far behind with download speeds averaging just a little under 13 Mbps which in turn is substantially faster than Sprints average of 98 Mbps The numbers also indicate that Sprint has a bigger ratio of subscribers who can only access sub-LTE data speeds which is why the companys average data speed is just half that of Big Red and Magenta With coverage maps indicating the second-best coverage by volume ATT consistently gets middle-of-the-road rankings for LTE availability and speed
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Earlier this year Verizon ATT and T-Mobile committed to rolling out gigabit data speeds on their respective networks by the end of 2017 which will surely be achieved via LTE-A LTE-A or LTE Advanced has been making its way to the US after being available in Europe and Asia for a while At this point all four carriers have implemented the technology to some degree ATT has been rolling out LTE-A for the past few years Sprints version called Spark began rolling out in late 2014 and there are currently several hundreds of cities covered by Verizons version of the enhanced technology Although a bit late to the game T-Mobile has started to roll out LTE-U which is part of the LTE-A standard in six cities Fortunately the number of devices capable of taking advantage of these enhanced speeds has grown making LTE-A more of a selling point than it previously was
Even though Verizon has an impressive LTE network Big Red is no longer the only compelling option when it comes to data performance Recently T-Mobile has made big moves for coverage and speed in the US and the Uncarriers network is about to get a boost as T-Mobile deploys its new nationwide 600 Mhz spectrum after securing 45 percent of the spectrum at auction earlier this year This low-band spectrum will offer better speeds and better performance indoors while significantly extending range although a new device will be needed to take advantage of these gains However until then Sprint is the most-improved network for 2017 according to OpenSignal due to having improved its LTE reliability and speeds over the past year
Without a doubt the best carriers for data are Verizon and T-Mobile In OpenSignals regional performance comparison either Verizon or T-Mobile offered the best data performance in the majority of regions and in some cases the providers were tied Out of 36 regions T-Mobile and Verizon were ranked as top-performing wireless networks in all but a single region If youre someone who uses a lot of data or for whom data performance is among the top criteria for a wireless provider you couldnt go wrong with either Verizon or T-Mobile
When wireless providers did away with two-year contracts by putting an end to subsidized phones we were told that the cost of our service would decrease I dont know about you but I personally didnt see my bill go down To make matters worse carriers tried to do away with unlimited data plans causing many of us to get slammed with overages Fortunately unlimited data plans have been making a comeback this year but finding the best deal often requires a little homework and sifting through a lot of fine print
Fine print notwithstanding plans are arguably the most straightforward part of a wireless provider To choose the provider with the plan thats right for you you need only to ask yourself a few key questions such as
Determining if youll need a family plan should be easy since you should already know whether your own phone line will be the only line on your account or if youll be needing additional lines for a spouse parent teen or somebody else With unlimited plans being the latest trend you might consider simply going unlimited if youre anything but the most casual data user And while spontaneous trips can sometimes occur its likely that youll know whether there are any international trips in your immediate future
With many providers consolidating things like minutes text messages and data into bundles its often the add-on services and features that have the most potential to increase the cost of your plan In the not-too-distant past tethering connecting a device to your smartphone so as to use your smartphones mobile data would be one of those additional costs Another example would be those equipment protector and insurance plans that most carriers offer Most carriers offer at least a handful of different add-ons
Note Keep in mind that most of the prices listed on each providers website are adjusted to account for an autopay discount More often than not the final amount for a plan could be 5 more for a single line or 10 more for multiple lines
With T-Mobile streaming video is capped at 480p quality unless you upgrade to a premium ONE plan

T-Mobiles unlimited plans called T-Mobile ONE are often cited as being what pushed the other carriers to offer more competitive unlimited plans Beginning at 75 per month T-Mobile ONE includes unlimited talk messaging and data but there are certain stipulations For instance those who are among the top 3 percent of data users who use an estimated 32 GB of data per month or more will be deprioritized which essentially means a decrease in data speed and performance As well streaming video is capped at 480p quality unless you upgrade to a premium ONE plan There are also limitations regarding tethering
However you have the option to upgrade the ONE plan to ONE Plus by adding an addition 10 per month which removes many of the stipulations and adds certain premium features like unlimited in-flight data for domestic flights offering GoGo service Its also worth noting that all of T-Mobiles ONE plans have taxes and fees included in the plan price and will cost 5 less per month if you sign up for autopay most of the prices shown on the T-Mobile website reflect this autopay credit
For multiple lines the same ONE plans apply but the rates change with each additional line If you needed two lines on your account a base ONE plan would cost 100 or 50 per line For four lines on a basic ONE plan the cost would be 40 per line or 160 total
Sprint has not been one to shy away from unlimited data plans The company offers a base plan that begins at 60 per month for a single line 100 per month for two lines and 30 additional for each line after the second The features of the base plan are comparable to T-Mobiles ONE plan but without certain restrictions like the 480p quality cap for streaming video Notably Spring often has promotions on its plans as is the case currently which usually amounts to knocking ten dollars of each line
Due to ATTs acquisitions of DIRECTV and Warner Bros many of ATTs plans include television services including the relatively new DIRECTV streaming service and HBO GO With streaming video requiring a ton of data it makes sense that ATT would bundle in-house streaming services into its bundled unlimited plans and if you happen to be in the market for a streaming television service that will allow you to cut the cord theyre pretty compelling plans
The base unlimited plan is the ATT Unlimited Choice plan at 65 although it becomes 60 if you sign up for autopay As youd expect Unlimited Choice has many of the same stipulations as the base T-Mobile ONE plan however this entry-level unlimited plan actually limits data speeds to 3 Mbps If you want full-speed data as well as 10 GB of high-speed tethering and high-quality streaming video youd want Unlimited Choice Plus at 95 The Plus plan also includes the HBO streaming service Its worth noting too that both plans can accommodate multiple lines the cost for a single line is applied to the second line but with a five-dollar discount After the second line lines three and above cost 20 each
Unlimited plans arent the only option ATT offers Until recently unlimited data was available only to ATT customers who also had DIRECTV leaving everyone else with only the data bucket plans to choose from which are still available today Basically you pay for a set amount of data 1 GB for 30 3 GB for 40 6 GB for 60 etc with a line-access fee of 20 on top With the line access fee you get unlimited voice and messaging So if you chose the 1 GB data option your plan would cost just 50 20 line access 30 for 1 GB of data not including taxes and fees If your data needs are small this could be a great way to save some money on ATT service
Now we get to Verizon Historically an anti-unlimited carrier with a reputation for costly plans Verizon recently introduced unlimited data plans at reasonable prices making the company much more competitive with the likes of T-Mobile and Sprint And while some carriers plans can be kind of confusing with all the stipulations and limitations Verizons plans have been simplified and exist at four levels Small Medium Large and Unlimited The Small plan includes unlimited talk text and 2 GB of high-speed data for 60 before the autopay credit At the Medium and Large levels youll get 4 GB and 8 GB of data for 75 and 95 respectively Last but not least Verizons unlimited plan costs 85
Perhaps the greatest benefit of Verizons plans is that there arent the stipulations that the other carriers tack onto their so-called unlimited plans

These plans can be adapted for families too The cost of the tiered plans are calculated by taking a base cost for the data and adding line access fees for each line So for the mid-level plan you start with a base of 55 for 4 GB of data per line then add 20 for each line if you were bringing three lines to Verizon this plan would cost 95 per month before taxes fees and any autopay discounts For the unlimited plan a single line costs 85 before the autopay discount two lines cost 150 three lines cost 170 four lines cost 190 and so on
Perhaps the greatest benefit of Verizons plans is that there arent the stipulations that the other carriers tack onto their so-called unlimited plans for instance Verizons plans dont put a limit to the quality of your streaming video they dont cap your data speeds and they dont limit tethering
Assuming that youve narrowed down the carrier options to the ones that perform the best in the areas you need looking at their plans is a great next step to narrowing them down to the one thats best for you If Verizon and Sprint are neck-and-neck in terms of network quality for your area you might be able to choose between them by determining which could offer you the best plan at the lowest rate
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Unless youre the type who never appreciated being coerced into two-year contracts by the prospect of discounted phones you were probably disappointed when the Big Four did away with subsidized phones Although it mostly gave us the ability to jump between networks as we pleased it essentially forces us to pay the full retail cost of increasingly expensive devices In fact certain upcoming flagships could cross the thousand-dollar threshold making it harder than ever to keep ourselves in the freshest tech
As you choose a wireless provider another consideration is what options they offer for you to get a new phone In the two-year-contract era we would get a subsidized phone use it for 24 billing cycles and renew our contracts to get new phones as a discount Unfortunately no matter how long we wait between upgrades subsidized phones are a thing of the past which leaves us with three options financing leasing and buying outright
Obviously the third choice entails having to spend hundreds and hundreds of your hard-earned dollars in one fell swoop Not ideal The other two options financing and leasing might make your wallet happier today but have their own drawbacks
Financing your device basically means that the full retail cost of your chosen phone is dividing into 24 installments and added to your monthly bills allowing you to pay for new devices gradually instead of all at once But going this route is essentially like signing a two-year contract since the remaining balance of your device becomes due in the event that you were to cancel your service in other words financing a phone is a lot like signing a two-year contract without the discount Even so financing will still be the best option for most people with the operative word being most
Since the carrier is essentially handling you a phone in exchange for your promise to pay for it later financing a device requires creditworthiness also known as a credit check If you have good credit you have nothing to worry about but for youngsters who dont have established credit or those with somewhat checkered credit histories financing might not be an option For those with poor creditworthiness an upfront payment for part of the cost of the device might be required or its possible that paying full retail for the phone would be the only option
Just like financing leasing a device also requires creditworthiness but the difference is that youre making monthly payments to rent a device rather than to own it Its very similar to leasing a car in that you make payments to rent the phone for a predetermined amount of time at which point you become eligible to trade in the phone for something new and the process begins again Leasing is a good option for someone who would prefer being able to frequently get new devices but the caveat is that theres no return on investment since the payments youve made dont count toward anything
Each of the Big Four offers financing that works basically as described above Cost of device 24 months payment added to monthly bill The exception to this formula would be when theres an upfront payment required The reason for upfront payments is to ensure that the monthly payments for a device stay below a certain threshold which is usually about 35 Then there are the leasing programs that most of them have
ATT has two leasing program options called Next and Next Every Year The former allows you to lease at device and trade it in after two years at long as 80 percent of the devices retail price has been covered by payments Next Every Year is similar but it allows you to trade in your device every 12 months or once each year
At T-Mobile the leasing programs are JUMP and JUMP On Demand The former works by allowing you to trade in your device for something new once half the retail cost of your phone has been covered by your monthly payments The cost for JUMP is an additional 15 added to the cost of your plan and the device youre leasing Although JUMP On Demand works similarly instead of paying for both JUMP and device payments you pay a set amount each month allowing you to trade in your device up to three times in a 12-month period The amount you pay per month is determined by your creditworthiness
Unfortunately Verizon doesnt really offer a leasing program anymore Currently the only option is to buy a device either outright or to pay via monthly installments
Sprints leasing program is called Flex and its arguably the most straightforward of the bunch Like T-Mobiles JUMP Program Flex is an additional fee you pay each month alongside the monthly payment for the device When you choose your desired device the cost of that device is broken into 18 installments that are added to your monthly bill Once youve made 12 payments on the device youre eligible to trade it in for another or you can pay the 6 remaining payments to own the device
Generally there are no game-changing differences between the Big Four when it comes to buying or leasing devices Similarly we can expect them all to offer virtually the same flagship smartphones as well as a plethora of lower- and mid-range smartphones Of course there are occasionally noteworthy devices that end up being carrier-exclusive For instance T-Mobile used to be practically synonymous with the SideKick ATT was the only carrier to offer the iPhone for a while and Verizon had an exclusive on last years Google Pixel phones last year so its always a possibility that the next phone you cant wait to get your hands on is only on one network
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Over the course of this article we discussed wireless coverage compared data performance reviewed the features and costs of service plans and examined financing and leasing options that the carriers offer For most consumers these are deciding factors when it comes to choosing a wireless provider
Chances are good that you already have some idea of which carriers perform the best in your area either due to having experienced their coverage firsthand or having had friends or family members on those networks However if youre curious about testing out a network youve never used before you might consider buying a SIM card for one of the MVNOs Mobile Virtual Network Operators that lease that networks tower for example prepaid services like Boost Mobile and Cricket can provide a commitment-free snapshot of what service is like when youre on Sprints or ATTs network respectively Most carriers are now offering their own in-house prepaid service too If you happen to live somewhere with spotty coverage some MVNOs operate on more than one carriers network which might actually close some of the coverage gaps
With contracts being essentially nonexistent you can actually join any of the Big Four for a test run simply use your own device and purchase a SIM card with which to start a new plan If youd happen to need a device most providers offer a risk-free trial period usually 15 or 30 days after which you can return your device and cancel service without penalty Obviously actually using the service is going to be the absolute best way to find out just how well or poorly it will work for you
Now Id like to hear from you Which carrier do you use currently Are you happy with your provider or are you considering one of the other Big Four Do you have any advice for others who might be shopping for a wireless service Sound off in the comments below
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