Who Has The Best 4G Service?

Category: Mobile

Choosing a mobile 4G service provider can be confusing. Verizon claims "More 4G coverage than all the others combined," while AT&T boasts that they are "The nation's largest 4G network." Can they BOTH be telling the truth? Read on for help with unravelling these claims, and some tips on selecting 4G mobile phone service...

There's 4G and Then There's 4G...

AT&T and Verizon Wireless are both claiming to have the best 4G service. Which one covers the most geographic territory? Which is faster? The answers to these questions are ambiguous, depending on how you define “4G” and whose speed tests you believe. It’s easier to compare the companies’ data plans and pricing, but even that can be confusing.

When it comes to coverage, AT&T is fudging on its claim to have the largest 4G network. That’s true only if you count the souped-up version of 3G service as “4G.” AT&T’s older network is based on HSPA+, an enhanced version of the 3G HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) that AT&T has used for years. If you consider this a 4G service, then AT&T can cover about 250 million Americans.
Best 4G Service

Verizon uses 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution), which experts generally agree is a “true” 4G technology. It is a brand-new standard rather than an upgrade of an older one. Whereas HSPA+ is the pinnacle of 3G technology, LTE is the base of a mountain from which even better 4G service can grow.

Looking only at 4G LTE coverage, it’s clear that Verizon is way ahead of AT&T. In September, 2012, CNN Money published LTE coverage maps for Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint. At that time, Verizon covered 371 markets and about 75% of the U. S. population. AT&T covered 65 markets and 25% of Americans. Sprint covered just 19 markets. All three carriers are constantly building out their LTE networks, so coverage is changing. But Verizon has a big lead right now.

In terms of data speeds, there is not much difference between the LTE networks of Verizon and AT&T. The former advertises download speeds of 5 to 12 Mbps and upload speeds of 2 to 5 Mbps. The latter claims to offer the same speeds (5 to 12 Mbps) both downloading and uploading. Independent tests produce varying results.

AT&T’s HSPA+ network is significantly slower than LTE; in one test, AT&T HSPA+ delivered only 2.6 Mbps downloads. Based on that performance and AT&T’s relatively sparse LTE coverage, most customers would be better off with Verizon.

What About 4G Data Plans?

When it comes to data plans, Verizon gets kudos simply because that company has the common sense to make it easy for a customer to buy. Right here is everything I need to calculate what my Verizon shared data plan costs will be; there’s even a calculator to do the math for me. Unlimited voice and text are included with each plan.

AT&T starts by asking for my ZIP Code, a practice that always makes me wonder what the cheapest answer is, and why "price and availability are based on your location." Then it shows me a chart of options that includes no fewer than six footnotes. I have to choose between an Individual or a Family voice plan to get certain data options. If you’re an existing AT&T voice customer, you can change your data plan online; but if you’re an existing AT&T data customer, you have to call a voice number to change your data plan. New customers have to buy an AT&T device just to see what their data plan costs may be.

Who has time for this nonsense? I’ll stick with Verizon for honesty in labelling, a faster and broader 4G network, and a more transparent way of shopping for cellular service.

Of course there are other options. Sprint, T-Mobile and regional carriers may offer good deals on 4G in certain geographic locations. If you don't stray far from home, that may work for you. You should also check into prepaid 4G service to see if it makes more sense than being locked into a two-year monthly contract with hefty early termination fees. See my related article New Options for Prepaid 4G for details on a variety of prepaid 4G offerings.

Do you have 4G service? Tell me what you think about your mobile provider. Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Who Has The Best 4G Service?"

Posted by:

Emjay
05 Oct 2012

You said it! Verizon has it all over AT&T plan and service. That said, the only place Verizon does not work for me is right at my house. Geez.


Posted by:

Roger Mager
05 Oct 2012

I had Sprint for years, can't say I was diappointed but migrated to Verizon about a year ago. I travel (driving) the 11 western states. Is Verizon absolutely Perfect, well maybe not. BUT I'm convinced it's as good as it gets. I stay in a lot of Hotels, many times it's way faster than the motel Wifi!I also had ATT on an Ipad 1 "their 3g" of course around Phoenix. JUST Horrible! I was with ATT for 10 years before giving UP on them getting their act togeter and switching to Verizon. ATT's business plan is simple, they OVER-Promise and under-deliver!


Posted by:

PaulB
05 Oct 2012

I use MetroPCS, 1 Android phone with unlimited voice and text and up to 5 GB for $40.00/month. Service is good for what I need!


Posted by:

salim
05 Oct 2012

now that t-mobile & pcsMetro merged, how's that gonna change the game, especially for prepaid 4g?


Posted by:

Ken Heikkila
05 Oct 2012

Interesting article. Too bad the information is so out of date (what a difference a month makes). I live 100 miles East of Portland, in the woods ~20 miles N of the Columbia River & my AT&T iPhone not only says I am on 4G, but the FCC mobile broadband test app says I am getting 5.87 Mbps download speed- definitely in the 4G LTE range, if on the low end. I would be surprised if a Verizon phone would even get a signal on my property & I'd be willing to bet a Sprint phone wouldn't.


Posted by:

Gary
05 Oct 2012

Don't care. I have two $9.95 "stupid" phones from Tracfone (less than $7 a month each). I use my Kindle keyboard with free 3G for the rare times I may need to google something when I'm on the road. Works for me!


Posted by:

Charles Heineke
05 Oct 2012

When considering who has the "best service", I believe that there are more things to consider than just coverage and speed. Cost is a major factor today, for most people, in determining "who's best". Most people aren't aware yet that you're no longer limited to the Big Four in wireless. There's a newcomer on the block who is offering a lot more cellular service for a lot less money. Nationally launched on 9/21/2012, Solavei, LLC is a new, well-funded, MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) using the T-Mobile network to offer Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data on T-Mobile's Nationwide 4G network, for only $49/month plus only state and local taxes. Customers can either buy a Solavei phone or bring their own, as long as it's an unlocked GSM (AT&T or T-Mobile) phone, including the iPhone. There's No Credit Check, No Deposit, No Down Payment, and No Contract. And customers can even earn free service or an additional income by simply referring other customers to Solavei. Solavei is partnering with Walmart, Bank of America, and other major, national retailers to bring additional savings to their customers, similar to Groupon, plus pass along 50% of Solavei's net earnings from the profit from those sales back to Solavei customers. So now customers can lose their contracts, lower their costs, and even earn free service or an extra income, on the acknowledged T-Mobile network, which is soon expected to acquire the MetroPCS network, adding even more coverage and bandwidth to their offering.Most people aren't aware yet that you're no longer limited to the Big Four in wireless. There's a newcomer on the block who is offering a lot more for a lot less. Solavei, LLC is a new, well-funded, MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) using the T-Mobile network to offer Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data on T-Mobile's Nationwide 4G network, for only $49/month plus only state and local taxes. Customers can either buy a Solavei phone or bring their own, as long as it's an unlocked GSM (AT&T or T-Mobile) phone, including the iPhone. There's No Credit Check, No Deposit, No Down Payment. And customers can even earn free service or an income by simply referring other customers to Solavei. They're also partnering with Walmart and Bank of America to bring savings to their customers, similar to Groupon, and then pass along 50% of Solavei's net earning from those sales back to Solavei customers. So now customers can lose their contracts, lower their costs, and even earn free service or an income, on the acknowledged T-Mobile network, which is expected to soon acquire the MetroPCS network, adding even more coverage and bandwidth to their offering.


Posted by:

SnailSpeed
06 Oct 2012

I live at the eastern edge of the SF Bay Area and have AT&T "4G", with occasional, spotty LTE coverage. I must confess, I am not impressed. I have a Samsung Galaxy Note which is a pretty awesome device, but the plans are waaay too confusing. I think the article was right on point.


Posted by:

Dez
07 Oct 2012

What about Tmobile? Why were they not included?
I ask not because I am an advocate for them - far from it. I moved from Tmobile to Verizon because Tmobile CANNOT provide service within a 20+ mile radius of my home.


Posted by:

Robert
07 Oct 2012

I am currently (trying) to use NetZero's "4G" mobile hotspot (for computer) with mixed results. I'm not certain which actual carrier they are using to provide the service, but I know I seem to get better coverage with plain old regular Tracfone cellular service (they use both ATT and T-Mobile in my area) than the "4G." Whoever it is (as the provider) I'm not impressed... If and when I do connect I swear my dial-up connection is sometimes faster on my desktop than the "4G" on the netbook/laptop systems. It seems I can only get a 4G signal if I hang the unit out of the window of the second floor of my house on the west side...

I can't help but think that this "4G," and possibly a lot of "4G," is more hype than reality. I sould hesitate to pay a premium price or select a phone carrier based on a "4G" offering/plan without better proof of results at this point in time.


Posted by:

Melanie Goddard
08 Oct 2012

After 13 years with T*Mobile, we just switched to Verizon. If you are an urban creature, T*Mobile may well be the most affordable option, and I've always gotten excellent customer service from the T*Mobile reps, but I can no longer get a signal at our home in Maine and I was never able to take full advantage of my Samsung Galaxy S because I rarely got a "4G" signal.

So, now, armed with the iPhone 5 and Verizon service, I feel reborn! Of course, I'll have to eat out a lot less to afford it, but hey, I can entertain myself with really speedy internet on my phone.


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