How to Pick the Best Car­rier for You

iPhone Life Magazine - - Gear Guide - by Nic k Miller

Re­mem­ber how pick­ing an iPhone car­rier used to be a straight­for­ward de­ci­sion? Three years ago, you would’ve been thrown un­der the do­min­ion of AT&T, which had ex­clu­sive rights to the iPhone. It was kind of like be­ing a peas­ant in feu­dal 17th­cen­tury Europe. Luck­ily, we have more free­dom now, but with free­dom comes re­spon­si­bil­ity. It's up to you to fig­ure out which car­rier to choose, and this guide will help you weigh your op­tions. We’ll cover all the ma­jor considerations when check­ing out of­fer­ings from na­tional, pre­paid, and re­gional car­ri­ers, based on your lo­ca­tion and com­mit­ment level.

FOR THE CITY DWELLER

Ver­i­zon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mo­bile are the big dogs in the US telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in­dus­try, and they come with many perks—the new­est iPhone mod­els at a dis­counted price, the largest set of fea­tures, and of course, na­tional cov­er­age with 4G net­works in many ar­eas of the coun­try. Yet all of this comes at a cost. Na­tional car­rier ser­vices of­ten have the most ex­pen­sive monthly fees, bind you into two-year con­tracts, and of­ten have out­ra­geous early ter­mi­na­tion fees. But the up­side to the cost­li­ness is con­ve­nience; if you live in a rea­son­ably pop­u­lated area and aren't strapped for cash, a na­tional car­rier is prob­a­bly the way to go.

WHICH CAR­RIER IS THE CHEAP­EST?

While the top car­ri­ers' most ba­sic plans now fea­ture un­lim­ited talk and text, some make you pay dearly for data, which most of us need for surf­ing the web, stream­ing mu­sic and videos, and us­ing apps on­line when out of range of a Wi-Fi net­work.

When it comes to rea­son­able pric­ing for plans with data re­stric­tions, T-Mo­bile and Sprint take the cake. If you're a light data user, you can pay just $50/month for 1 gi­ga­byte of data with T-Mo­bile as well as with Sprint, which is sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper than the $80 you’ll pay for the same ser­vice if you go with Ver­i­zon or the $65 you’ll spend if you opt for AT&T.

If you’re dy­ing to stop bud­get­ing your data use and are lean­ing to­ward get­ting an un­lim­ited plan, T-Mo­bile is the car­rier to beat. Its $80-per-month plan is $30 cheaper than Sprint’s un­lim­ited of­fer­ing. AT&T and Ver­i­zon don’t of­fer un­lim­ited data plans, so if you’re a heavy data user, you’ll find pur­chas­ing higher-gi­ga­byte plans with ei­ther car­rier to be a pricey prospect.

While T-Mo­bile has great prices, there is a catch. Most con­tract plans sub­si­dize your iPhone, mean­ing they charge you a dis­counted price for the de­vice (roughly $200) but lock you into a two-year con­tract. T-Mo­bile, on the other hand, doesn’t sub­si­dize its phones, mean­ing you have to pay the full re­tail price, which ranges from $600 to $900. If you can’t af­ford the up­front cost of the de­vice, you can fi­nance your phone with T-Mo­bile for an ex­tra monthly fee. This fee, which ranges from $20–$30 a month, isn’t in­cluded in T-Mo­bile’s ser­vice plans.

BUY­ING FOR THE WHOLE FAM­ILY

If you're look­ing for a fam­ily plan, a good place to start is with Sprint's Fam­ily Share Pack, which lets you split up to 40 GB of data be­tween up to 10 lines—an un­par­al­leled deal for big fam­i­lies.

T-Mo­bile lets you spec­ify how much data you want for each in­di­vid­ual line. When shop­ping for a fam­ily of four, you can pur­chase 3 GB each for only $140/month (not in­clud­ing phone fi­nanc­ing charges if you haven’t paid off your de­vice).

Ver­i­zon and AT&T charge $160/month for fam­i­lies shar­ing 10 GB of data. But with Ver­i­zon, only cus­tomers who qual­ify for the com­pany’s Edge pro­gram, which lets you up­grade your de­vice more fre­quently and get dis­counts on ser­vice, get the $160 price; for ev­ery­one else it costs $260/month.

For ul­tra-con­nected fam­i­lies, T-Mo­bile and Sprint of­fer un­lim­ited data plans.

THE TWO-YEAR COM­MIT­MENT

In 2013, T-Mo­bile com­pletely did away with con­tracts, so you can quit the ser­vice at any time at no charge. No other na­tional provider of­fers this. In fact, other providers charge you a stiff early ter­mi­na­tion fee of as much as $350 if you quit their ser­vice be­fore your con­tract is up.

EX­TRA FEES

How about ac­ti­va­tion and data over­age fees? Well, each na­tional car­rier's ac­ti­va­tion fee is about $35. How­ever, most Ver­i­zon and AT&T plans also charge an ex­tra $15 per GB when you ex­ceed your data al­lowance. T-Mo­bile and Sprint, on the other hand, have no data over­age fees at all; in­stead dock­ing your con­nec­tion speed when you ex­ceed your limit.

AVOID­ING FAULTY CON­NEC­TIONS

In the battle for cov­er­age and qual­ity, AT&T and Ver­i­zon are neck and neck. So while T-Mo­bile and Sprint have in­ex­pen­sive plans and un­lim­ited data of­fer­ings, depend­ing on where you live, it might be worth cough­ing up the ex­tra cash for a fast and re­li­able con­nec­tion. A great way to see which car­ri­ers have the best cov­er­age in your area is to sim­ply check the street-level cov­er­age maps on each car­rier’s web­site.

AT&T typ­i­cally pro­vides the fastest down­load speeds, but Ver­i­zon is the largest wire­less car­rier and its mas­sive 4G LTE net­work cov­ers more ur­ban and ru­ral space than any other provider. Ac­cord­ing to a March study by mo­bile an­a­lyt­ics firm RootMet­rics, Ver­i­zon beat out ev­ery other ma­jor car­rier in the cat­e­gories of re­li­a­bil­ity, data, calls, and texts, while AT&T came out on top in speed.

In June, Ver­i­zon an­nounced that it would be up­grad­ing its LTE net­work to a sys­tem dubbed “XLTE,” which it says will de­liver faster peak speeds at dou­ble the band­width of the com­pany’s cur­rent net­work.

CON­CERNS OVER CREDIT SCORE

Although all the na­tional car­ri­ers pro­vide a full set of fea­tures, T-Mo­bile and Sprint rank among the high­est in terms of spe­cial ser­vices. What makes th­ese two car­ri­ers slightly bet­ter than oth­ers? They don't run credit checks for some plans. If you're cur­rently build­ing your credit, Sprint and T-Mo­bile can get a phone in your hand quicker than any other car­rier.

THE VER­DICT

In this day and age, you should be ac­cus­tomed to the battle be­tween price and qual­ity. If you value fru­gal­ity or have an un­sta­ble source of in­come, you'll prob­a­bly find a friend in TMo­bile or Sprint. On the other hand, if you're will­ing to shell out the ex­tra bucks for the high­est qual­ity ser­vice and speed avail­able, you'll likely be happy to sign a con­tract with Ver­i­zon or AT&T.

FOR THE COM­MIT­MENT-FREE LIFE­STYLE

Pre­paid plans are great if you're strapped for cash, need a burner phone for work, or just don't plan on us­ing much data. While all of the top car­ri­ers of­fer pre­paid as well as con­tract plans, mostly smaller sub­sidiaries of larger na­tional car­ri­ers tout their pre­paid op­tions. Th­ese plans let you pay as you go, thus giv­ing you to­tal con­trol over how much you spend.

Short on cash this month? No prob­lem, just use your phone less. Typ­i­cally, pre­paid car­ri­ers will al­low you to credit a dollar amount to your ac­count, which will be deb­ited as you use your phone. Some of the most popular pre­paid car­ri­ers for iPhone are Boost Mo­bile, Vir­gin Mo­bile, Cricket, Net10, H20 Wire­less, and U.S. Cel­lu­lar.

DON’T AL­READY OWN AN IPHONE?

If you don't al­ready own an iPhone, you may want to avoid get­ting one through a pre­paid car­rier. Since pre­paid car­ri­ers can't of­fer you a sub­si­dized dis­count like na­tional car­ri­ers can, they usu­ally cost two to three times as much. You can get an iPhone 6 on a two-year con­tract from na­tional car­ri­ers for about $200, but the same phone on a no-con­tract deal with Cricket costs around $650.

SEARCH­ING FOR THE BEST PLAN

Most pre­paid iPhone car­ri­ers of­fer sim­i­lar monthly plans, so to de­ter­mine which one is best for you, con­sider both daily plans and pay-as-you-go plans.

Boost Mo­bile, Vir­gin Mo­bile, and Cricket all of­fer monthly plans rang­ing from $40 for 500 MB of data to $60 per month for 5 GB. If a month is too much of a com­mit­ment, Boost Mo­bile of­fers daily pre­paid plans at a rate of $3 a day for un­lim­ited talk, text, and data.

For those who don't plan on us­ing much data, Vir­gin Mo­bile of­fers a $20 monthly pay-as-you-go plan that in­cludes 400 min­utes of talk time and charges you an ex­tra $0.15 per text and $1.50 per MB of data you use.

FOR WILDER­NESS AND COUN­TRY

If you live in Alaska, ru­ral Wy­oming, or the Ap­palachian area, you prob­a­bly know who your re­gional car­rier is. Since ma­jor car­ri­ers tend to fo­cus on large pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, re­gional car­ri­ers have stepped in to pro­vide ser­vice to those who live in ru­ral set­tings. This is def­i­nitely some­thing to con­sider if you live far away from a city.

Your op­tions for a re­gional car­rier are limited, and ob­vi­ously they are con­fined to a cer­tain re­gion, but a few large re­gional car­ri­ers like U.S. Cel­lu­lar, All­tell, and nTe­los cover sev­eral states in the US. Oth­ers like Golden State Cel­lu­lar (Cal­i­for­nia), Strata Net­works (Colorado), and West Cen­tral Wire­less (Texas) are limited to sin­gle states.

WHAT IPHONE MOD­ELS ARE AVAIL­ABLE?

Just be­cause re­gional car­ri­ers cater to life in the coun­try doesn't mean they're low-tech. Although most re­gional car­ri­ers do of­fer the iPhone 5s, the prices vary widely. For ex­am­ple, nTe­los of­fers a 16 GB iPhone 5s for $150 with a two-year con­tract, while Ap­palachian Wire­less of­fers the same for only $75.

HOW MUCH DO RE­GIONAL PLANS COST?

The big­gest draw­back of re­gional car­ri­ers is that they're usu­ally more ex­pen­sive than na­tional ones. For ex­am­ple, T-Mo­bile's un­lim­ited talk and text plan with 5 GB of 4G LTE is priced at $70/month, while Ap­palachian Wire­less's most anal­o­gous plan is priced at $99.99/month.

Be­fore sign­ing on with a re­gional car­rier, ask around to find out how na­tional car­ri­ers per­form in the area. If dropped calls are com­mon, and you use your phone on a regular ba­sis, you may want to con­sider pay­ing a lit­tle ex­tra for a re­li­able re­gional ser­vice.

At the end of the day, the best car­rier is the one that fits your per­sonal needs. If you're fi­nan­cially sta­ble and live in an ur­ban or sub­ur­ban area, Ver­i­zon and AT&T are go­ing to of­fer you great ser­vice. If you're a young pro­fes­sional still build­ing your ca­reer and credit score, T-Mo­bile has in­ex­pen­sive but qual­ity op­tions that you can opt out of at any time. If your in­come is a lit­tle shaky and you don't plan on us­ing much data, a pre­paid phone is go­ing to be a good choice. Fi­nally, if you live in an area be­yond the reach of big na­tional car­ri­ers, a re­gional car­rier might be worth the slightly higher cost. Nick Miller is a dig­i­tal jour­nal­ist and writer in Nashville, Ten­nessee. He cur­rently re­ports on tech­nol­ogy star­tups and cre­ative mo­bile ap­pli­ca­tions for Ven­tureBeat. com and writes tech and psy­chol­ogy how-to guides for Won­derHowTo.com. You can fol­low Nick on Twit­ter @nicalexmiller.

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