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Which cellular carrier is best for smartphone users (and is Verizon ready to crash in replay of Sprint’s fall from grace)

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AT&T vs. Sprint vs. VerizonCellular coverage

The choice of which cellular carrier to go with is the perfect example of “you get what you pay for”. Verizon, the number 1 carrier right now, has the best coverage out of the big three (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint) but its 4G coverage is slightly lower than AT&T’s. Verizon does have excellent 4G coverage in the major metropolitan areas though, so a lower 4G coverage radius might not matter to most people. And if your area does not provide Verizon 4G service, understand that AT&T’s 3G service is much faster than Verizon’s. As far Sprint, well, they are Sprint. Coverage is not bad but not great either and they seem to be struggling to keep up [wipes tear from eye].

Customer service

In the customer service and billing area, Verizon rules easily with AT&T coming up slightly short. Sprint on the other hand, is notorious for their poor customer service and terribly inaccurate billing systems, both of which they have been working hard to correct. Poor customer service, combined with poor network quality killed Sprint a few years ago. Either problem is a concern but when you put both together, it is catastrophic. A poor network results in more support calls and if customers have a problem and cannot get it fixed – they leave (called “churn” in cellular nomenclature).

Costs

Verizon Wireless coverage in 2012So Verizon seems like the obvious choice – yes? Hold on there. Verizon is terribly expensive, much higher than AT&T and Sprint, and their rigid plans are starting to tick customers off. Verizon has said they would continue allowing “unlimited data” plans for their existing customers but have recently introduced “fine print” exceptions and other egregious means to force customers to a shared data plan (where customers are charged according to their data usage with data usage plans being shared by all users on the account). Their lowest priced plan runs $80/month for a mere 300MB of data while their average plan is $100/month for 2GB data.  But hey, you get unlimited voice minutes – but who needs that anymore?

The AT&T and Sprint plans are cheaper than Verizon but do place caps on voice minutes (450 minutes for both AT&T and Sprint), a restriction that many customers may not mind since voice usage has dropped dramatically for most people. AT&T offers a $60/month plan for 300MB of data with a 3GB plan going for $70/month, significantly cheaper than Verizon but capped with 450 voice minutes. Sprint on the other hand, is going big on unlimited data and is throwing all their marketing efforts behind that maneuver. For $80/month you get unlimited messaging, data, and 450 voice minutes and for $110/month you get unlimited everything. This sounds great unless you are a low data user in which case it comes out more expensive than alternatives like AT&T. Probably not a smart move on Sprint’s part but falls right in line with past gimmicks that they promoted.

One additional factor may prove important for customers, and geeks especially.  Verizon’s new shared data plans include hot spot features at no cost.  Well, at least that’s what Verizon claims.  The hot spot feature is included at no additional charge but Verizon of course hopes their customers will use the heck out of it and buy more data from them [evil laugh].

What about the other guys?

And of course, you have T-Mobile, MetroPCS, and some smaller providers. Costs are typically average but coverage is fairly poor with most and customer service also falls short too.

So which one?

So it really comes down to “you get what you pay for”. Verizon is more expensive but they have the best cellular network and customer service. AT&T’s prices are cheaper but they just don’t have the coverage and network quality that Verizon has – but they are getting awfully close. And if you are a high data user and aren’t afraid to tie yourself to a company that just might really piss you off at some point, Sprint is there for you [booming evil laugh].

A note about Verizon

Verizon has been the big boy on the block for quite a while now. In the past, Sprint held that position and they took advantage of it. Spring began charging more for their services and sneaking in charges here and there via gimmicks that customers quickly saw right through. A mish-mash of charges combined with a poor network quality and poor customer service knocked Sprint right out of the race. At least in terms of price, Verizon seems to be following that same philosophy by introducing restricted plans and higher prices while telling customers that their new plans are good for them. But where Sprint had a poor network, Verizon has a great one. In the end, if Verizon’s network takes a hit of any kind, they’re likely to see a huge churn of customers, just as Sprint did several years ago. And of course, AT&T is breathing down their necks.  With some smart business maneuvers, AT&T is certainly capable of blowing past Verizon and taking the crown.