Now that the iPhone is available on T-Mobile, it’s harder to see the differences between cell phone providers. Previously, carriers differentiated themselves by the mobile devices they offered. AT&T had the iPhone, Verizon had the Droid collection, Sprint had the Evo, and T-Mobile had everything between. Today, that differentiation is shrinking due to the emergence of global branding within the smartphone market.
Smartphone manufacturers, following in Apple’s footsteps, realized the importance of unified brands across global regions. Unified brands equal greater brand recognition and interest. Hence, the Samsung Galaxy series arrived and took the smartphone market by storm. Other manufacturers are taking note.
What does all of this mean? If device selection was the primary differentiation between carriers and now that’s gone by the wayside, then consumers are going to rely more on contracts and plans. So which cell phone carrier is right for you? How do you know which plan to choose?
GSM vs CDMA
Before you sign a two year contract with a cell carrier, it’s important to know the differences between the big 4 U.S. carriers. To start, let’s review GSM vs. CDMA phones:
- AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM carriers while Sprint and Verizon are CDMA carriers.
- GSM stands for Global System for Mobiles. It’s a mobile radio technology used around the world.
- CDMA stands for Code Division Mobile Access and is an alternate mobile technology used almost exclusively in the United States.
- GSM carriers use SIM cards to put customer information on phones while CDMA carriers assign customers to specific phones.
Basically, customers can switch between GSM-based phones freely by swapping out SIM cards themselves, whereas they’d have to get the switch approved by their CDMA carrier.
Additionally, GSM users are able to place calls and surf the web simultaneously, something CDMA users are by in large, unable to do. Other than these differences, both technologies are similar when it comes to reception and call quality.
A Brief Rundown of Major US Cell Carriers
Verizon: The largest of the 4 U.S. carriers. Fast and reliable service with the largest 4G LTE coverage. In other words, they offer the best service — at a price. Verizon is typically the most expensive of the 4 U.S. carriers when comparing similar data and contracts offered. Verizon’s 4G LTE network is live in 486 markets. Data packages are limited to 2GB, 5GB, and 10GB.
Sprint: One of the more affordable of the 4 carriers. Good nationwide coverage — not quite as expansive as AT&T or Verizon, but reasonably reliable. Sprint’s recently launched 4G LTE is the 3rd largest — or 3rd smallest, depending how you look at it — and is available in 318 cities. Sprint is one of two carriers that offers unlimited data.
AT&T: The second largest U.S. carrier. Coverage similar to Verizon with a greater 4G footprint. But notice there’s no LTE in that sentence; this is because AT&T utilizes HSPA+ – a technology more akin to “3G+”. Not quite as fast as LTE but it’s certainly within reason. HSPA+ is generally considered a stop-gap between the 3G and 4G LTE technology evolution. AT&T’s 4G LTE network is live in 157 markets markets with more to come. Priced just below Verizon’s average contract. Data packages are limited to 300MB, 3GB, 5GB.
T-Mobile: The smallest of the 4 U.S. carriers. Almost bought out by AT&T before government intervention, T-Mobile is attempting to capture market share through offering unlimited data, calls, and texts. T-Mobile’s coverage is below the other 3 carriers but works within reason in major markets. Like AT&T, T-Mobile utilizes HSPA+ 4G technology in most devices. T-Mobile has recently launched their 4G LTE network is 7 cities. Data plans offered are 500MB, 2GB, and unlimited.
Cell Phone Carrier Pricing Comparison
Now that we understand the primary differences in carriers, let’s have a deeper look at the various contracts they offer:
- Verizon averages $95, $105, $115, $155, $155 for unlimited voice/text with 300MB, 1GB, 2GB, and 10GB respectively per month.
- Sprint averages $80 for 450 minutes and unlimited text/data per month
- AT&T averages $100, $130, $150 for unlimited voice/text with 300MB, 1GB, and 3GB respectively per month
- T-Mobile averages $50, $60, and $70 for unlimited voice/text and 500MB, 2GB, and unlimited respectively per month.
As you can see, pricing and data plans between carriers is obvious.
Verizon and AT&T stand out as the most expensive carriers. There’s a reason for that. They both offer the most comprehensive, reliable networks with large 4G footprints. The drawback, of course, is if you use a lot of data and pass your monthly data limit. When you see the hefty overage penalties on your cell phone bill, suddenly those hours of streaming cat videos won’t be so entertaining.
This is something to seriously consider as you explore the various plans offered by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.
Do You Need an Unlimited Data Plan for Your Smartphone?
How much data do you really plan to use? If you’re one of the always-connected types who uses social media frequently and streams music throughout the day, it may be worthwhile to look past AT&T and Verizon.
As data plans become more limiting and expensive, the unlimited data plans offered by Sprint and T-Mobile become much more appealing. Of course, the drawback of these carriers are the less comprehensive networks, especially when considered their infant status in the new mobile technological standard, 4G LTE.
Gizmodo uses the iPhone 5 to breakdown the pricing difference between carriers:
“Over a reasonable two-year lifespan of the iPhone 5, you’re looking to spend $2,120 with Sprint versus $2,260 on T-Mobile and $1,730 on Straight Talk. How that compares to AT&T and T-Mobile depends on how much data you use, but even if you stick with just 1GB/month you’re looking at $2,240 on AT&T over two years and $2,360 on Verizon.”
As you can see, the variations between the carriers are dramatic. In essence, you get what you pay for. Top dollar brings you the best you can get, albeit in a limited way, while the more affordable carriers tend to offer better deals in a limited reliability.
Whether you’re signing a new contract or jumping to a new carrier, it’s important to ask yourself just how you will use your phone. If you use a lot of data, then Sprint or T-Mobile will be your best bet. Just make sure you live in one of their markets with good reception and data speeds.
If you crave speed and reliability but can live within your data means, AT&T and Verizon are the better option. Just make sure to keep price in mind when signing any contract.
Let Us Know!
Which carrier do you use? Which plan suits you best? Tell us about your experience in the comments section!