The Best Mobile Network For You?

Category: Wireless

A question comes up often from my readers: “What is the best mobile network?” Unfortunately, it’s one of those questions to which the answer is, “It depends…” The answer to the question can get pretty complex when all of the dependencies are considered. Let's take a look...

What Makes a Mobile Provider Excellent?

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are the dominant players in the mobile industry. Competing radio, TV and online commercials try to convince you that one is better than the others. So what's the truth? It depends mainly on you, the user. What’s important to you in a mobile service: signal coverage, data speed, customer service, or something else? It also depends on where you use mobile service, and your travel habits.

Signal coverage is generally “excellent” in the core areas of most major cities, no matter which carrier you use. It gets spottier the further you move into the suburbs. Traveling by road in between cities, you’ll get a good signal with any of the major carriers most of the time. But if you go just a mile or two away from major highways, you’ll find that coverage varies enormously in rural areas.

T-Mobile Coverage Map

The map shown here illustrates T-mobile’s coverage of Denver's western suburbs, and more sparsely populated mountain areas. Green areas have strong signal strength while red areas have weaker signal. The data points in this map are actual signal strengths experienced by users as reported by an app developed by OpenSignal, an independent research firm specializing in mobile carriers.

OpenSignal’s app measures more than signal strength. It also measures download speeds and network latency, millions of times per day. When it comes to data speeds, Verizon’s LTE network is the long-reigning leader. But in recent months, T-mobile has improved to virtually tie Verizon. AT&T comes in third place, and Sprint, bless its little heart, is a distant fourth.

Another significant measure is the percentage of connection time that LTE customers spent on LTE connections with each carrier, as opposed to dropping down to a slower technology because LTE was unavailable. Verizon takes first place, but T-mobile is very close behind.

Coverage, Signal Strength or Customer Satisfaction?

The A.C. Nielsen Co. reports that T-mobile subscribers have the highest level of overall satisfaction with their carrier, and are most likely to recommend their carrier to others. Verizon and AT&T are significantly behind T-mobile and close to each other. (I report I saw yesterday indicated that Verizon had lost a stunning 400,000 customers in the first quarter of 2017.) Sprint is in the basement, but climbing steadily in recent months. Sprint may overtake the declining AT&T soon.

Which carrier is best for you depends on where you live and how you use mobile devices. Looking at the latest data from OpenSignal’s app provides good measures of coverage, download speeds, and latency. Customer satisfaction is a subjective metric that is just as important as objective metrics like coverage and speed.

If you live in a metro area, or near a major highway, all four of the major carriers will have a pretty strong signal. So it boils down to which of them offers the best plan for you and your family. Competing plans seem to change monthly, but there has been an encouraging trend of late to move back to "unlimited data" plans, so if you tend burn through data with your GPS, Youtube, music streaming or gaming, see my article The Return of Unlimited Data Plans.)

Of course, there are also the resellers, who bundle or repackage cellular services from one or more of the above. Some of the more popular ones include Republic Wireless, Consumer Cellular, Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS, Tracfone, Net10, Straight Talk, and Ting. You can find links to their websites and more money-saving tips in my article STOP Wasting Money on Your Cell Phone.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "The Best Mobile Network For You?"

Posted by:

21 Apr 2017

I have no problem, am DEAF ,so no mobile for me


Posted by:

21 Apr 2017

For a look at a variety of Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) go to:

You can see which major operator an MVNO uses, check the various rates and read reviews on many of them.

Posted by:

Tom R
21 Apr 2017

Consumer Cellular seems to be beating all of the carriers....At least as far as Consumer Reports is concerned...

Posted by:

john silberman
21 Apr 2017

I agree with the above, go with a MVNO. Far less cost with identical service as any of the big names. Consumer Cellular is my favorite, but if you use a lot of data something else may be better for you. My use is less than 500MB/month, I can always wait for wifi for my big data hogs. And I download all my navigation maps by wifi.

Posted by:

Chuck Johnson
21 Apr 2017

We switched to Consumer Cellular about a year ago, saving roughly $100 per month over AT&T. The service is excellent, and their customer service is outstanding.

Posted by:

Darl Haagen
21 Apr 2017

Any comments on Google's Project Fi? Thinking about going there, but haven't seen much objective reviewing, other than Project Fi itself, of course!

Posted by:

21 Apr 2017

To Darl Haagen: I have Project Fi since summer 2016 and before I switched, I saw a lot of reviews from customers. And I can say, they were pretty objective. Just google.

From my experience I like it. It's got my attention by sale of their Nexus 5X for $199, so I researched what they offer. Eventually I spent $50 more for 32Gb model from Google's own online store with subscription of Project Fi.

Switching took literally seconds, completely flawlessly. The only cavort can be if you have Google Voice virtual phone number - you'll get two option only - to keep your old mobile number and lose GV's or keep your GV's one and lose your old mobile number. The solution is to open another Google account and transfer your GV number there. This way you'll keep both your numbers.

Since I switched from T-Mobile, I didn't feel any difference (Fi uses T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular networks). Last fall with friends I cross the US from Niagara Falls back to Los Angeles and didn't have any problems with coverage (except obvious in rural areas with no coverage at all or with Verizon only).

Customer service is excellent - once I lost mobile Internet access, called Support, they answered momentarily in minutes analysed what was wrong and gave working solution. It's not enough for objective statistics, but I didn't have any problems since.

Another good thing is voicemail. Google translates it to text that you can read or listen of the voice message. Mostly works fine, but can be wrong interpretation, so a couple of times I listened the original message. It works for English for sure, about other languages I can say, it doesn't work for Russian.

Lets talk about money. Project Fi has base service (unlimited call and text) for $20 per month. Internet adds $10 per Gb. But if you don't use it fully, it will go to the next month. If you used more, they charge you another $10 with similar principle. So last month I've got around $27 bill. It includes some tax (around $3). So if you are heavy Internet user, better to stick to some major carrier with unlimited Internet. But they claim if there is any open WiFi, you;ll connect to it if it's in Google's safe list of WiFis - works both for Internet and calls over WiFi.

The only problem I had is a couple of calls that didn't go through at all - no missed calls nor voice messages. But I had similar experience with T-Mobile before, so, possible, it's not specifically Project Fi's problem.

So overall I like Project Fi and don't plan to switch. At least for now.

Posted by:

Smoky Lowe
21 Apr 2017

I have been a customer of consumer cellular for 3 years and to me they are the best hands down. their service preps. are great and seem to act like you are the only customer they have. will never change, have no problems with dripped signal in 3 years. Thank you.

Posted by:

21 Apr 2017

I have used Credo for years. They contract with Sprint but I like the fact they support things I support. I round up my payment as do many others and they donate millions of dollars to progressive causes. That makes it worth it as far as I am concerned.

Posted by:

Burt Finch
21 Apr 2017

I have been with Consumer Cellular since 2009. I do not have one single complaint. Great price, outstanding customer service. I do not use a lot of data but when I do I have no problems.

Posted by:

Jerome Taylor
22 Apr 2017

Consumer Cellular is THE way to go........IMHO.

Posted by:

22 Apr 2017

I've used Tracfone since day one. It's the best for light and medium users. I have a nice byop Samsung and the talk, text and data are less than $7.00 per month. NO complaints! (ymmv)

Posted by:

Darcetha Manning
22 Apr 2017

I switched over to Consumer Cellular from AT&T, and am satisfied. I like Consumer Cellular's customer support, and their plans are more reasonable. I am saving money using them. 😉

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