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How to Choose a Cell Phone Carrier
By Jamie Lendino, ARTICLE DATE: 08.26.10

How to Choose a Cell Phone Carrier

Here's how to sift through all the baloney and choose the cell phone carrier that's right for you.

Choosing a cell phone carrier is tougher than ever. Should you go with AT&T or Verizon, or a smaller player like MetroPCS? There has been plenty of progress in the past several years. The number of dropped calls has fallen across the board. Data networks are faster, and handsets have improved tremendously.

On the other hand, we had thought pricing schemes were obtuse a few years ago. Now, they're downright shady. Sometimes, it's all we can do to keep track of the weekly changes in handset and plan pricing—and we do this for a living.

Let us help you through the thicket of distortions.

The Lay Of The Land
There are four nationwide wireless carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. They offer the widest range of plans and phones, and the best coverage.

Below the "big four" are the "little three:" U.S. Cellular, Cricket and MetroPCS. They each cover only about a third of the country, though their phones can make calls in the rest of the US by roaming. They can have much lower monthly rates than the big guys, but may not have the hottest, most expensive phones.

Further down the food chain, dozens of tiny wireless carriers that each cover a few states or counties, such as the venerable Cincinnati Bell (founded in 1873!). They often have great deals for people who primarily stay in their home areas. We covered them extensively in our 10 Small Carriers With Great Phones article.

Finally, there are a few virtual phone companies which piggyback on other networks and cater to low-end users. The best-known names there are TracFone and Net10. TracFone got very high marks from our readers in 2009 for their no-nonsense service for infrequent callers.

For this article, we'll break down the selection process into seven important categories. Read this article, decide on your priorities, and you'll be able to choose the carrier that's right for you in a flash.

1. Plan Style
There are three primary ways to pay for your cell phone plan. Most Americans have post-paid contract plans from the four major carriers. These plans lock you into a two-year contract with fearsome early cancellation fees, in exchange for being able to get the hottest phones at discounted rates. They may also include bonuses like free calling to people on the same carrier, and discounted family plans.

Cricket, MetroPCS, T-Mobile, and the Sprint subsidiaries Virgin and Boost do good business in no-contract monthly plans. You pay more for your phone up front, but you don't have to suffer under an ironclad contract.

Traditional prepaid plans let you pay by the minute if you don't use your phone very often. The best deals there are with T-Mobile, Virgin, TracFone and Net10.

2. Price
As a general rule, Sprint, US Cellular and T-Mobile tend to cost less per month than AT&T or Verizon. MetroPCS and Cricket cost even less.

AT&T and Verizon Wireless have further pumped-up their plan prices by requiring data plans for most of their phones. Their argument is that it helps customers avoid accidental data overages. But that's disingenuous, as we've argued for better monitoring tools and sufficient warnings for years. Our advice is to stick with Sprint, T-Mobile or a smaller carrier if you want a texting phone. If you're on AT&T or Verizon, you're going to pay so much per month for a texting phone that you might as well buy a smartphone.

Infrequent mobile phone users should look seriously at prepaid, pay-by-the-minute phones. Each of the big four carriers has a prepaid option; T-Mobile's is the most affordable. TracFone, Net10 and Sprint's Virgin Mobile also have inexpensive pay-by-the-minute options which can come out to under $10 a month for very occasional use.

3. Coverage
While Sprint and T-Mobile may offer more value, the trade-off is in coverage. Sprint's maps are somewhat smaller than Verizon's, while T-Mobile's maps are the smallest of the four major U.S. carriers. (That said, T-Mobile has great coverage in many major cities.)

Cricket, MetroPCS, and U.S. Cellular are smaller still, though they supplement their voice coverage with roaming agreements. On average, the smaller a carrier's coverage map, the cheaper the plans are. That said, if you spend most of your time in the appropriate coverage areas, you can save a bundle by going with one of the smaller carriers.

Don't put blind faith in coverage maps, as they may not show local dead zones. Instead, consult your friends and family and make use of your carrier's no-penalty return period to make sure your phone works where you need it.

If you tend to travel internationally, AT&T and T-Mobile use the global GSM system, which works almost anywhere in the world. Other carriers mostly use CDMA, which works in about 40 countries including Canada, Mexico and China, but not Europe. Verizon and Sprint both sell a few combo GSM/CDMA phones which roam globally, like the BlackBerry Bold 9650.

4. Phone Selection
This is much less of an issue than it used to be, unless you want an iPhone.

AT&T still has the iPhone locked up. But beyond that, there are excellent Android, BlackBerry, and even webOS smartphones available on all four carriers. Even Cricket now has the Sanyo Zio, the first Android smartphone available from a super-low-cost carrier. Both AT&T and T-Mobile carry a few Symbian phones; the best of the bunch is T-Mobile's excellent Nokia E73. Windows Phone is in the middle of a huge transition, so we recommend against buying Windows Phones until the first Windows Phone 7 handsets hit late in 2010.

5. Speed
Each of the top seven carriers except MetroPCS runs a 3G data network, which gives you Internet speeds comparable to a slow home DSL connection. Some connections are faster, which becomes especially relevant if you want to "tether" your phone to use as a modem for a laptop.

According to our independent tests across 18 U.S. cities, AT&T has the fastest but least consistent data network. But T-Mobile and Sprint are faster in some cities, so you should check our city-by-city results. Sprint's new 4G WiMAX network is very fast indeed, but it's only available in very limited areas. And you'll still have to pay $10/month extra for the privilege of owning a 4G-capable handset such as the Samsung Epic 4G, even if you can't use the fast network. T-Mobile is catching up fast; while it was several years late to the 3G party, it has doubled down on HSPA+, which performs quite well.

6. Customer Service
Each of the big four national carriers has improved in customer service recently, though of course you'll be able to find horror stories about all of them if you look. T-Mobile has had solid customer service all along. Customer service used to be Sprint's biggest downfall, but recent surveys show that the situation has improved.

Verizon and AT&T generally score well in support; Verizon got our Reader's Choice award last year. Verizon and AT&T's failings have to do with pricing, extra-cost services, and bloatware.

We haven't seen any reliable surveys that measure the smaller carriers' customer service yet, but we're hoping they pop up in our 2010 Service & Reliability study.

7. Future Outlook
By the end of 2010, a number of important things are set to happen. Verizon and MetroPCS are planning to roll out early trials of their next-generation LTE networks, which may be faster than Sprint's 4G WiMAX technology. The latter should see much more coverage across the U.S.

That said, at this point, most of the action has to do with handset and OS releases, rather than anything carrier specific. If you haven't moved to a smartphone, now may be the time. After a year of delays and questions, Android seems to have the wind at its back, with dozens of handsets already available across all the major carriers. Microsoft and Research in Motion are both launching major revisions of their mobile operating systems. HP just bought Palm; we're waiting to see what happens on that front.

Should you wait for the Next Great Thing before buying a new phone? We say no. There will be better phones out in three months. There will always be better phones out in three months. The pace of change doesn't seem to be slowing down.

One last thing: There are perpetual rumors about the iPhone coming out on a non-AT&T carrier, but those rumors have been swirling just as intensely (and with just as many fuzzy, unnamed sources) since 2008. We'll believe that when we see it.

For smartphones, all of the major seven carriers are relatively safe bets as long as you're comfortable with their coverage maps. Choose your carrier based on price, coverage and phone selection.

For feature phones, the picture is murkier. If you're buying a simple voice phone, take a good look at prepaid or all-you-can-eat options from TracFone and Net10 as well as the national carriers. For texting and touchscreen phones, we strongly recommend going with Sprint or T-Mobile. AT&T and Verizon's plan prices are just too high, because of their data plan requirements; on those carrier, you might as well step up to a smartphone.

Sascha Segan contributed to this report.